Inside historic Bell Labs, where tomorrow's tech is born

Bell Labs, now run by Nokia, shows off its superfast next-gen 5G networks, smarter smartwatches and a drone that delivers new mobile network capacity.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
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It's not the traditional five senses that Nokia Chief Technology Officer Marcus Weldon worries about.

For sight, sound, touch, smell and taste, it takes at least a tenth of a second for humans to notice changes. But for tracking the motion of our heads, we're something like 100 times more sensitive. That's a problem for augmented reality, which blends computer imagery with the real world, he said during a September tour of his company's Bell Labs facility in Sunnyvale, California.

Network equipment from Weldon's employer must deliver AR imagery with minimal delay to avoid motion sickness or missing data. A response time of just a thousandth of a second is a key goal for the next-generation 5G networks Nokia hopes will start supplanting today's fourth-generation mobile networks starting in about 2020. That may sound like an obscure tech stat, but Weldon promises it'll bring a revolution as big as the arrival of telephones.

"It's the once-in-a-hundred-years rearchitecting of the network,"
he said, and it'll give everything from power outlets to factories instant wireless access to massive computing power. "The goal is a brand-new network that will remove mundane tasks to create time for things that are more enjoyable, creative and productive."

See Bell Labs' historic phones and next-gen networks (pictures)

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The AR demonstration was just one of the experiments I saw when Bell Labs opened its doors to show off its work now that it's part of Nokia. Examples of its future tech include high-speed, short-range antennas responsive enough to remotely pilot a toy race car, fiber-optic networks reaching speeds of 1 terabit per second -- 1,000 times faster than Google Fiber -- and racks of computer gear called an Airframe designed to minimize network delays.

Nokia's attempt to blaze information technology paths got new influence by absorbing one of the world's most famous research facilities. Nokia Bell Labs is an updated name for the 91-year-old research facility Weldon leads. It's headquartered in Murray Hill, New Jersey, but its Silicon Valley campus, in Sunnyvale, is a big enough deal to host half of Nokia's board meetings.

Landmark R&D

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Bell Labs' 1978 prototype mobile phone tested in Chicago, Illinois. The Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS) program was based on a Bell Labs research paper from 1947 by Douglas Ring.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Bell Labs began in 1925 with researchers from the two companies that operated it, American Telephone & Telegraph and Western Electric, which made the telecommunications equipment AT&T used in the US-wide Bell System of phone operations.

The lab has changed hands several times since the US government breakup of the AT&T phone monopoly in 1984. AT&T spun off Bell Labs and the Western Electric manufacturing operations as Lucent Technologies in 1996, but competition became global. French telecommunications company Alcatel absorbed Lucent in 2006, then Finland's Nokia took over Alcatel-Lucent in 2016. Nokia's staff increased Bell Labs beyond 1,000 researchers -- almost as big as it's ever been.

Bell Labs has a remarkable track record for discoveries and innovation.

Claude Shannon laid the computer industry's foundations by founding the field of information theory in 1948, describing how to measure information in binary digits -- bits -- and determining the maximum rate for sending data on anything from a telephone line to a Wi-Fi network. Peter Shor in 1994 figured out how a quantum computer could wipe out today's cryptographic data protections. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie invented Unix, the powerful and influential operating system software.

A Bell Labs Nobel Prize -- in 1956, to John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley -- paved the way for Silicon Valley. They invented the transistor, a small electronic amplifier that became the core component of today's computer chips. After decades of miniaturization, chips now have billions of transistors, and their silicon substrate gave the computing-industry heartland its name.

Thinking a decade ahead

Bell Labs isn't so devoted to basic research these days, but neither is it just looking for a quick buck.

"We think 10 years out,"
Weldon said.

A drone lands portableA drone lands a portable, solar-powered, short-range high-speed network unit called a Future Cell on a roof near Nokia Bell Labs in Sunnyvale, California., solar-powered, short-range high-speed network unit called a Future Cell on a roof near Nokia Bell Labs in Sunnyvale, California.
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A drone lands portableA drone lands a portable, solar-powered, short-range high-speed network unit called a Future Cell on a roof near Nokia Bell Labs in Sunnyvale, California., solar-powered, short-range high-speed network unit called a Future Cell on a roof near Nokia Bell Labs in Sunnyvale, California.

A drone lands a portable, solar-powered, short-range high-speed network unit called a Future Cell on a roof near Nokia Bell Labs in Sunnyvale, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

So what's cooking?

  • The Future Cell, a compact, solar-powered radio station that Nokia dropped by drone onto a rooftop site to bring fast 5G connections to nearby houses. Up to eight of the cells can automatically link by radio connection to a bigger base station that ties into the internet.
  • DeepX, a software project to bring artificial intelligence to devices as small as smartwatches. Deep learning, a key tool in today's artificial-intelligence technology, has caught on for things like translating text and identifying photo subjects. But AI experts like Google and Facebook typically need mammoth centralized computer data centers. Nokia's approach pushes some of the work to small devices to improve privacy and compensate for spotty network coverage, said researcher Markus Hofmann.
  • High-speed radio links for homes. Millimeter-wave radio can transfer gigabits of data per second, significantly faster even than 1Gbps connections from services like Google Fiber. But the short-wavelength radio signals don't penetrate walls or turn corners like today's wireless networks. To that end, Nokia developed a matched set of magnetically linked network devices. An outside module sends and receives data from a nearby network station, while an inside module supplies the power and connection to the home network. "You really need to have the antenna on the outside of the home," said researcher Theodore Sizer II.
  • Nuudle "augmented thinking" software to go beyond Google. "Search has a bunch of fundamental flaws," researcher Chris White said: You need to know what you're searching for, the data must be tagged ahead of time so it can be sifted, and search results generally don't reflect individual priorities. But Nuudle presents data from several sources -- video, photos, websites, text files, sensors -- as circles on a roomwide touchscreen. Tapping the circle of something you're interested in increases its importance in your search and the prominence of related information.

Startups have exploited new Internet and mobile technology for the last 20 years, but it's time now for a fresh foundation, Weldon argued.

"We're entering a technology-intensive era," Weldon said. "Technology is going to lead and then enable new business models."