I've noticed that labs more and more are being characterized and
driven by profit above all things. Do you feel that sort of pressure to
Look, it's an inescapable fact that everything is more competitive.
I think whether you look at our lab or any lab, you're going to find a
greater focus on being directly relevant to what the business objectives
are. It can be getting technology to marketplace more quickly, putting
greater attention on technologies or services or new products that yield a
greater payoff earlier, or in some cases, it's providing a competitive
advantage just in terms of knowledge. All those are valid roles for labs
and I think ours is no exception. So it's not so much feeling pressure.
Frankly, for me, it's more feeling the excitement of being able to make a
direct contribution to business.
One of the things that I find in many of the people at least in AT&T Labs is that they are
responding to that. They are feeling the same degree of excitement about
being able to have a direct impact on many people's lives. I have someone
that works for me that invented 800 service. About half the long distance
phone calls that are made today are 800 calls. So here's one person who has
literally affected hundreds of millions of people. That's really exciting
for a scientist or engineer.
What about the role of serendipity though?
I think there's a myth that somehow serendipity only happens in a
completely unconstrained, free environment. I think serendipity (as the
name implies) is an unintended consequence or an unintended finding. That
happens even in the most applied settings. The thing you have to do of
course is be on alert for it, and take advantage of it, and exploit when
you find it. But I frankly don't think there's any less likelihood that
you're going to get serendipitous results in a more applied environment
than in a completely unconstrained one.
This idea of research as a sort of an unconstrained activity--you give
people money, you give them a site, you give them a facility, and they go
off and sort of do whatever they think about and just follow their nose--is
really a romantic and very inaccurate model of the way research is done in
most places. The most basic researchers have a game plan. They can tell you
exactly what they're trying to do and exactly where they're headed. And
this idea that people run around in labs and white coats and sort of wait
for inspiration to hit them is just nonsense. The most successful basic
scientists have a game plan that stretches out for, in most cases, at least
a few years and they know exactly what they're doing.
So you're really not just mad scientists running around?
Well we're certainly not mad scientists, but I think even the
romanticized version of what research labs were ten years ago is not really
fairly captured by that idea.
What about your own research Give us a little taste of the
future, à la David Nagel.
One of the exciting things that I find about the immediate future is
the potential for electronic commerce. I think for the first time we're
beginning to see, particularly on the Internet, examples of people learning
how to take advantage of this new medium, to do things differently. For
example, one of my favorites (and it's actually a service that I use) is Amazon.com, the book service. Because it
doesn't cost you anything other than a larger and larger database to have
more and more books, you don't have to physically warehouse things, you
don't have any scaling costs associated with being bigger and bigger and
offering a larger and larger choice. So you end up with a service that's
qualitatively, not just quantitatively, very different than any existing
bookstore. I think that you'll begin to see other things like that
Of course we just introduced a whole series of new electronic commerce
services that are useful both by customers. SecureBuy is a
service that basically takes all the risk out of buying something over the
Internet because we guarantee the purchase. It also makes available to
merchants a new set of tools that they can use to hopefully create new
services like Amazon.com.
Compared to the AT&T switched network, the Internet is like two
tin cans and string. It's almost experimental at this point.
How do you think it's going to change in the next five or ten years?
Well there's a lot written about that. I'm not so pessimistic.
First of all the Internet has been around for a long time. We're not
talking about something that was invented two years ago when the popular
press started picking it up. The Internet has been functioning and doing
quite fine and most impressively. Going from 10,000 to 10 million people is
a huge increase in scale for any kind of a system. Frankly I think it's
done a lot better than anyone would have guessed. And so I'm not so
pessimistic that we're going to see some sort of an explosion of the
Internet in which everything grinds to a halt and so on.
There are between 50 and 100,000 independent physical networks that
interconnect today that form the Internet. And so we are all bringing on
new capacity all the time.
When people start doing things that don't make a lot of sense, other people
come in and change it. Yes, things may be a little chaotic in the
transition periods, but you know, it all works through and stuff seems to
continue to work.
So you don't think we really need to be vigilant as a society?
You think that the market can take care of it?
Well I think we always need to be vigilant. I'm not a person for
whom there's no role for government in any of this. In fact, I think there
has to be. The Internet wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for the NSF or for ARPA, or for a variety of federal agencies
who patiently supported it and helped create it and create the conditions
and the market for it in some cases. So there's a strong and venerable
history I believe, particularly in this area, of benefits from government
involvement. The art is deciding when the government needs to step in, when
they need to step out, and which things they should be most involved
I think the communications and
information systems are among the most precious pieces of what we've
been granted. Absolutely people need to be vigilant, but they
also need to be informed. And they need not to be frightened. I think
they need to be activists, be participants in all of this because if they
are participants and they know what's going on, they have a much better
chance of having a say in it and influencing it.
If I walked up and looked at you, what's the one thing I would
suspect that you've never done?
Well that's quite a question! I think one of the strangest projects
that I worked on, or worked within, was the idea of making an integrated
circuit, an integrated system that was basically a Cray supercomputer on a
chip. It was both ahead of its time and behind its time and it was not a
great idea for a project. But that was probably one of the more bizarre
ones that I worked on.