Nearly 70 years ago, Bell Labs staff created the transistor, a component that went on to change the world. Now, the company is looking to Bell Labs Israel, the latest 'franchise' of the venerable tech organization, for the next big thing.
One of the next technologies to change the world, according to Bell Labs Israel CEO Danny Raz, could be Star Trek-style teleportation. This futuristic transportation would be products rather than people, however; new networking protocols already under development, combined with 3D printing technology advances, could in the near future allow a product 'beamed' in one location to be printed out on a high-speed 3D printer on the other side of the world.
Although the company's Israel unit didn't win any of the awards distributed for ideas and technologies in the recent Bell Labs Prize, it did score very close to the top in several categories - and Bell Labs Israel was notable for submitting more ideas than any other of the organization's worldwide offices.
"Israel may not have won this year, but the quality and number of the ideas submitted by Israel shows the great entrepreneurial potential and academic achievement in here," Raz said. "Sooner or later we are going to develop that breakthrough technology."
If that does happen, chances are that it will occur by chance, as did many other Bell Lab discoveries - like the transistor.
"Israel is blessed with many large R&D centers from companies like Intel and Microsoft. They are working to solve specific problems in their area of work, which is fine," said Raz. "Alcatel-Lucent [which owns Bell Labs] has R&D centers that work in the same manner, and we at Bell Labs work with them to help solve problems and develop technologies in the areas where AL is active, like networks and communications."
But unlike other R&D centers, said Raz, Bell Labs is expected to push the envelope and go beyond its standard mission.
"We spend about a third of our time interacting with Alactel-Lucent departments to solve problems, but the rest of the time we are on our own, trying to understand the 'big issues'. We aren't looking at next quarter's bottom line, like almost everyone in Alactel-Lucent and other multinationals. We are looking five years ahead, and beyond, to the groundbreaking stuff."
Of course, no one can predict the future - and the nature of a technology that no one was looking for means that neither Raz, nor anyone else, can predict where Bell Labs' journey will take the company. But he's ready to give an educated guess. "One of the big efforts at Alactel-Lucent today is virtualizing communications, moving protocols that were originally associated with specific pieces of equipment to generic hardware."
That's one of the objectives of Alactel-Lucent's Cloudband platform (much of which was developed in Israel), but as the technology develops, the limitations of virtualization in networking and communications is becoming apparent as companies try to develop technology for software-defined networking.
"When you try to move these legacy systems off their hardware into a virtualized environment, you have to account for all the functions that are hardware-dependent, and that leads you into developing 'virtual hardware' to satisfy those functions, many of which are nested in dependencies on other functions and other pieces of hardware," said Raz.
It's not just a new software architecture, it's a new hardware architecture too, said Raz, and the implications of that are enormous, especially in areas like Internet of Things.
"It really comes down to a reengineering of the network as we know it, and the work we have done so far shows that some amazing things are down the road. For example, if we combine new networking protocols with 3D printing, we can develop something akin to teleportation, where you can 'beam' a product over the network to have it printed out on demand on the other side of the world."
Technology for that is right around the corner, and as virtualized networks that are liberated from hardware continue to develop, even more amazing things will become a part of daily life, said Raz.
It is research, not development, that interests Bell Labs - and fortunately for Raz, the heads of Alcatel-Lucent are on board. "I can't say there is no tension between the business side of things, where executives and stockholders are looking at the bottom line - and looking for solutions that will increase sales - and our mission of discovering future technologies," said Raz. "Fortunately, Bell Labs is led by a very dynamic and forward thinking person Marcus Weldon, who is a big believer in research."