Why Bell Labs Sticks To The Basics

R&D Chief Brinkman expects a rich harvest from pure research

Alexander Graham Bell uttered his now famous request, "Mr. Watson. Come here I need you," on March 10, 1876. Forty-nine years later, the merger of AT&T and Western Electric's research-and-development operations gave birth to Bell Labs, a unique blend of economic savoir faire and basic discovery that continues to lead the communications and microelectronics revolutions. To carry the mission into the new century, the laboratories' present corporate parent, Lucent Technologies, recently appointed William F. Brinkman as vice-president for research. An affable, down-to-earth physicist who blends pure research with an impressive track record of transforming technology into marketable products, Brinkman now oversees the work of 1,200 researchers from his office at Bell Labs' headquarters in Murray Hill, N.J.

Brinkman takes the reins of a research operation that he helped revive after it faltered in the period following the 1982 breakup of AT&T. Over the past few years, Bell Labs has won a steady stream of accolades for its research and has spawned a host of new products. Its research won the 1998 Nobel prize for physics and the 1998 National Medal of Technology. In 1999, the labs racked up a record 1,020 patents.

Throughout his career, Brinkman has held a number of positions at Bell Labs, most recently as physical sciences research vice-president. In 1984, he left Bell Labs to become research vice-president at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. He returned to the company three years later as executive director of the physics-research division. As a physicist, Brinkman made fundamental contributions in such areas as superconductivity and semiconductor lasers. He is also president-elect of the American Physical Society and will assume office in 2002. Business Week Online's science-and-technology correspondent, Alan Hall, recently asked Brinkman about his plans for his new job and his views on the future of communications, technology, and industrial R&D. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Your background is in physics, but you have won a reputation as an expert at commercializing new technology. How do you reconcile the two?

A: I love the intellectual stimulation of physics, the many wonderful discoveries of the field, and the beauty of the fundamental understanding of nature that has come from the field. I also find it stimulating and very satisfying to create new practical things that become products. Both are challenging and fun, and both require knowledge of science and engineering.

Q: What are the key attributes required to manage a large and diverse R&D laboratory?

A: The ability to recognize excellent people, set directions, and provide support for the people trying to make things happen. One must be careful to distinguish innovation from discovery. You can only manage discovery by setting direction and hiring people to work in that direction with the hope of great discoveries. Innovation, the process of taking a discovery or idea to the market, is something that must be managed carefully, and we work hard to do this.

Q: What do you see as the main challenge of your new position at Bell Labs?

A: Bell Labs must deliver value to its parent, and that means quickly turning major research breakthroughs into significant new product lines. We've had considerable success at this in the past several years, with products like a central-office switch-router, the first software-based network switch for both data and voice networks, and the first all-optical router. We must keep these kinds of innovations coming.

Q: Today, few industrial research organizations do any basic research. Will basic science continue to be emphasized at Bell Labs?

A: Yes, definitely. For example, we have a group working on neural computation because we believe that new ideas of broad importance will emerge from a better understanding of the brain that we will gain from this basic research. My guess is that 10% to 20% of our research budget goes to basic science, but we really don't keep track of the basic- vs. applied-spending breakdown. We try to integrate all of our research into a holistic program.

Q: What would you choose as the most important recent advance in communications technology?

A: I would say the optical amplifier. This is a device that boosts light signals in an optical fiber by amplifying the light signal itself without first converting it to electricity. Invented at Bell Labs in 1986, these amplifiers gave a tremendous boost to fiber-optic transmission systems. Instead of requiring a regenerator every 20 to 25 miles, optical amplifiers are placed 75 miles apart. Without optical amplifiers, there would be no Internet as we know it.

Q: What trends do you see driving the development of technology in the new century?

A: Photonics and silicon-integrated circuits are going to drive high-bit-rate communication all the way home to the individual, enabling him or her to access many new kinds of information. In addition, high-speed wireless-data access will free us from the desktop and office.

Q: How will Bell Labs position itself to make a contribution?

A: There is going to be a marriage of electronics and photonics, united by system engineers and software engineers. This marriage will create extremely complex networks that will serve a broad spectrum of consumer needs. Bell Labs will need to maintain its expertise in all four of these technologies--electronics, photonics, systems engineering, and software.

Q: We hear much less about the threat of Japanese and "foreign" competition these days. Has the U.S. won back its leadership position?

A: It depends what we are talking about. The U.S. certainly holds the leading position in communications technology. In basic research, the Japanese have been making major investments that have put them in a much stronger position than in the past. However, I believe the U.S. is still in the lead.

Q: Is the U.S. still behind in competitiveness and innovation?

A: With the large number of recent startups, it's hard to say there's a crisis in innovation. However, I do think government funding of physical-science research at universities has suffered as research in the biological sciences has been built up and defense funding has decreased. I hope President Clinton's recent research-funding initiative can help to correct this imbalance.

Q: You probably don't do much research of your own these days. Do you miss it?

A: Yes, it was exciting to discover something that no one else understood.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.