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Where the Fantastic Meets the Future

Cherry Murray of Bell Labs talks about nanotechnology, network convergence, the pace at which theories becomes fact

Bell Labs has been a fount of innovation since its founding in 1925. Now the research center for Lucent Technologies (LU ), Bell Labs has been fundamental in many technologies taken for granted today, including computer and phone networks. Cherry Murray, senior vice-president for physical sciences research, has been with Bell Labs for 26 years and has seen major innovations go from research to development. BusinessWeek's Sarah R. Shapiro recently spoke with Murray about where she sees innovation going in the next 20 years. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: How has the corporate lab system changed during the past 20 years?

A:

Corporate research is still extremely important in the U.S. -- over two-thirds of the research and development spending is done by corporations. The federal government used to account for two-thirds of R&D spending back in the '50s and '60s, but that trend has reversed and corporate labs are doing very well.

In the past 20 years, large companies have become global and are no longer only focused on one market. Also, R&D around the globe was not possible when communication was only directly from person to person. The pace of R&D has gone up dramatically [with the advent of] the Internet. For example, in the '80s, as the first wavelength division multiplexing systems were being developed for optical communication systems, we had a research prototype: It took about seven years of development before we put out a product.

Today research and development occurs simultaneously. There's no opportunity anymore to do research first and develop the technology gradually [for a number of reasons]: It is possible to communicate, the markets are fluctuating, there is global competition, and prices are coming down dramatically. So now, we may be developing some product and discover that we want to add another feature, so we would do concurrent scientific research and development.

Also, small companies spring up very quickly now because of venture capital. So corporations are not isolated anymore from the science and technology environment.

Q: Is this a healthy change?

A:

I think it's healthy. It's exciting!

Q: Is enough basic research being done?

A:

Lots of basic research is getting done. At Bell Labs, about 20% of our research is science that will be commercial in 5 years to 10 years. Although, these days you can never be sure. You may think you're working on something that's 10 years out, but if you make a discovery, the technology can actually be commercialized sooner.

Roughly 10% of the people at Bell Labs are doing science that's cool and could conceivably be relevant to communications, but those scientists are not thinking about products at all. Other people who are thinking about [developing] products, will say, "We can use that [technology] in developing this [other] kind of thing." That could drive more science and also really high-tech new products. This is the interplay between really cutting-edge science and really cutting-edge technology.

Q: Are companies increasingly doing more research overseas?

A:

It depends. Every large corporation is a global corporation with global markets and customers. The real reason for going global with R&D is twofold: first, to connect with your customers; second, to make sure you're getting the world's best talent -- and the world's best talent doesn't necessarily come to the U.S.

Q: Where are the most promising areas of innovation?

A:

There are a lot of them. One is nanotechnology. Semiconductors are getting smaller and are already in the nanotechnology regime, which is basically the size of atoms. We are just on the verge of being able to create materials and devices that don't exist in nature but are modeled on biological principals. There are already nanodevices that are reaching the size of atoms, where things become quantum-mechanical, and we need to do a lot of research in science and engineering to get them to work effectively.

I'm running a conference on [another innovation which] will take 20 years to develop. [The conference is] on the things that are at the interception of biology and physical machines. These will be important for medicine and, of course, society.

Another thing that is important concerns the right education of the 21st century engineer: [teaching them] flexibility and a systems focus, and an understanding of complex systems and how to model them using massive amounts of computational power.

[Bell Labs is involved with] telecommunications and networks in particular. There are things [in the works] like very broadband wireless pervasive networks. Things are getting cheaper, smaller, better, more efficient, using less power, and we understand how to pack more bits into spectrum, for example. [A promising area of innovation is] efficient wireless spectrum usage and how to build, design, construct, and manage a worldwide network which is high-bandwidth. [The network must be available] to everyone all the time, and [needs to know] where you are all the time. It will be there in 10 to 20 years, depending on the market.

Q: What innovations will be available, near-term?

A:

In the near term, service providers are running, on average, seven networks each. All [of the networks] are going to converge into one big global network. This is called network convergence, and it's a big word in the industry, but actually how to do it is nontrivial. How do you manage this and how do you go from where we are now to where we will be is a very interesting challenge and requires a lot of innovation.

Also, in the near term, are location-based services. By 2007, cable-modem broadband that you can get in your house today will be available on your PDA. This technology involves a lot of innovation too, because the network will need to know where you are because it is your lifeline. For example, if you dial 911, the police will need to have the knowledge of your position to know exactly what highway you're on [to provide help]. Commerce will also be revolutionized by this technology.

There's another huge revolution, which is with our health technology. For example, a doctor can do a diagnosis a continent away. Using broadband technology, all the medical records, video of the surgery, MRI scans etc. [can be sent to] the world's best specialist. Nanotechnology devices in a person will beam out diagnosis. This will be possible because of communications, nanotechnology, and computers. There's a huge amount of innovation here. We're learning so much more about what's going on in living systems, and there will be a huge revolution.

Q: In what areas is the U.S. leading and in what areas are other countries ahead?

A:

Right now the U.S. is leading in pretty much all of science. We are doing very well with biology and medicine, but we are beginning to fall behind in the physical sciences and engineering, although we're still leading.

Right now, we have the world's best graduate education programs, and foreign students still come to the U.S. But there are many countries -- all of Europe, China, India, Japan, Taiwan -- that are absolutely focused on getting into high-tech industries and improving their science and technology educations. They are catching up with us, and that's both good and bad.

It's good because the world is producing more scientists and the global economy will rise. We just have to deal with the fact that we're living in a rapidly improving global world, and we've got to keep ahead of it if we want to have our economy strong.

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