Letter

Where's Bell Labs? Its President Responds


In reading this story, Where Have You Gone, Bell Labs?, I was dismayed to learn that Bell Labs "is essentially gone." As the President of Bell Labs, I can assure you that this is not the case. The author—who never contacted us—alleges that Bell Labs has shrunk from an organization 30,000 strong in 2001 to its current roster of 1,000, but this is an apples-to-oranges comparison: the 30,000 number included not only research scientists, but all of what was then Lucent Technologies' development resources. The actual number of researchers at that time was 1,500. In fact at no time during its entire history did Bell Labs employ more than 3,200 researchers.

The article, and in particular the associated chart, also implies that Bell Labs' innovations somehow came to a halt in 1978 and ignores recent inventions such as DWDM (the basis for much of today's optical networking) and MIMO (a technology which fundamentally advances broadband mobile Internet be it WiFi, LTE, or WiMAX).

While the type of research at Bell Labs has changed, the culture and fundamental focus on innovating in the Labs has not—nor the caliber of research and researchers. So where once Bell Labs did research into materials sciences because AT&T manufactured microchips, fiber optics, etc.(leading to inventions such as the transistor or the laser) today our research is focusing on the future of how we will communicate and interact with information, and therefore, our research tends to be in areas such as mathematics, 3D displays, quantum computing, and advanced optics.

This misleading portrayal of Bell Labs is particularly unfortunate because it obscures a valuable conclusion in your article: R&D is evolving, productively, in the direction of collaboration and there is a strong role for government involvement. No longer are there monolithic research organizations that do everything. Increasingly a model for research organizations, one that Bell Labs researchers exemplify, is based on a collaborative ethos that is increasingly global, increasingly open to partnerships with universities, government, and other institutions, and more responsive to the needs of industry.

The Bell Labs of 2009 may have less staff than it had at its historical peak but it is more diverse than ever before and is closely connected to the networks and partnerships that can extend its reach and amplify its impact. It remains a multidisciplinary hothouse of ideas in both fundamental and applied research. We are certainly not gone nor forgotten and, on the contrary, continue to be a driving force behind the next generation of communications technologies.

Jeong Kim
President, Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs

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