Inside Bell Labs almost 70 years ago, the invention that defined the 20th century was born: The transistor. On a recent sunny April day here in the present, Gizmodo had the rare opportunity to tour the historic and cutting edge facilities at Bell Labs — and get a preview of the inventions that could change this century.
Bell Labs is slaving away at science that will affect us all for years to come, but perhaps it’s best known for its storied history and innovations of the past. The lab’s origins date back to Alexander Graham Bell, and a joint venture between Western Electric and American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation.
Since then, the labs have passed through the hands of many companies — AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and now Alcatel-Lucent. Still, each owner has remained as invested in communications technology as the last — a rarity in the corporate world, and a tribute to the work being done inside.
The technology that has emerged from these buildings over the years has gleaned Bell Labs’ researches a couple Nobel Prizes, an Oscar, and an Emmy. Their clients include AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and other huge communications companies that depend on cutting-edge network technology.
The labs themselves have also evolved over theyears: Right now, they’re under construction — the inside of the facility is being worked on to open up a large space in the middle of the building as a green area for relaxation.
Walking into the main entrance of Bell Labs, the building’s midcentury modern architecture — full of exposed and grand, austere atriums seem fitting for the next-generation research being done inside.
Our first stop inside the labs was immediately to the left of the entrance — the Technology Showcase. This is an exhibit where all of the labs’ innovations are on display, along with explanations of when and why they were invented. It’s a helpful feature, since inside the sprawling laboratories, the technology of the past and future take on a decidedly more complicated tint.
In the centre of the showcase, a dramatic pillar of light displays the actual first transistor ever made. This tiny device, the first to to amplify and switch electronic signals, is the technological basis for everything we take for granted these days, from our smartphones to our electrical grid. It’s no surprise it’s displayed like a holy relic at Bell.
Until you press your face into the glass protecting the transistor, it’s almost unnoticeable — and easily the smallest piece of technology in the room. Other displays show developmental notes of different scientists and engineers, miniature models of larger inventions, and things like the first ocean optical cable, the first solar panel, and more. Any one of these remarkable inventions would be easily museum-worthy — here, they’re simply decorations that lead to the halls from which they came.
Hanging above everything is the Telstar satellite: Two were made for launch in 1962 and one went into space — the other served as a backup in the event that the first failed. The Telstar was the first telecommunications satellite enabling telephone, television and data communication across the globe. It was an absolutely monumental achievement, and its pristine twin is still a sight to see.
But beyond this tribute to the past, is the future. The first lab we hit? The Silicon & Lightwave Integration Models Line — aka the SLIMLine.
SLIMELine builds the components that receive the information from an optical line. The optical lines run throughout the world connecting different servers together, and the more advanced these components can be, the faster information can be received.
Before entering the lab, I was outfitted with my very own lab coat and hair net in a room buffering the hallway from the actual labs, just like the labs actual scientists. Because the lab deals in optical communication components, even the tiniest particles can affect performance.
An engineer at the lab, Mark Earnshaw, gave me a rough overview of what it is they do as we walked around the lab.
Here, engineers figured out how to constantly improve Alcatel-Lucent’s Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductors (CMOS). The transistors they make are for optical communications components for switching, filtering, and routing light. They also make high capacity optical transceivers. All this hardware is used for large data centres and the like — the goal is to maximise the speeds at which optical cable can be used.
After a tour of SLIMLine we headed to the next lab: The High Speed Optics Design lab. This is where ASICs, or Application Specific Integrated Circuits, are developed — these are chips that serve a particular function, like mining bitcoin. This lab deals mostly in wireless network base station ASICs — in other words, the things that send data to your phone.
Wireless radio towers that send the 4G LTE to your phone use the stuff made in this lab to literally emit the signal. As SLIMLine is working to making data transfer between servers faster- the High Speed Optics Design lab looks to improve the technology that delivers the wireless signal to you.
The process begins with a wafer — this one was about to be sent to get broken up into smaller pieces for use back in the lab.
In the middle of the room, a 10gbps wireless transmitter is on display. Announced a little over a year ago, this transmitter can transfer an entire Blu-ray to your phone if you just casually waved wander through the signal path. The lab’s goal is to push wireless transmission as fast as possible for as cheap as possible, without compromise quality and size.
Here, I was also shown how Bell tests chips — with a $US7,500 probe that puts a certain number of hair-thin wires right against a chip. If the tip of that probe were to lightly brush against anything unintentionally, it would be useless and have to be replaced. $US7,500 down the drain. Two of these probes are required to test a chip.
Leaving the ASICs behind, we checked out yet another lab where Alcatel-Lucent uses simulated optical transportation systems to test distortion when optical data is received.
Because transmissions will always get a little distorted on the journey to their destination, the signal inevitably needs to be corrected. And trying to make hardware that delivers data totally distortion free is way more trouble that it’s worth.
That’s why the Coherent Transmissions lab looks to correct the distortions as efficiently as possible, no matter where the inaccuracies came from. By testing signals at 400g or faster — they look for impairments or distortions that may occur and develop new signal detection and processing techniques that allow for higher speeds to occur without being caught up on the coupled distortion.
Next stop: Alcatel-Lucent’s Quantum computing research lab. We walked through a few halls where the work was being done. Bell’s hallways are long — some lit by big bright windows and others only using fluorescents.
I met with Bob Willett, the man behind the lab’s quantum push in his office. Quantum computers are insanely complex, and there’s a number of ways they could be made possible and practical. But you can’t try everything all at once, so Bell Labs has focused its energies on one particular approach.
Bell Labs is pursuing a particular method that involves rotating electrons isolated in a single layer of a crystal. They make these crystals in house with this machine:
And this is what those crystals looks like:
Bell Labs is building an entirely new lab dedicated to creating the crystals. Once the crystal is made, powerful magnets are wrapped around it. The motion these magnets make force electrons to move in a specific pattern.
The magnet is so powerful I had to keep my distance to prevent my credit cards from being wiped:
The biggest challenge Willett faces is to differentiate the movement of these electrons into two controllable sequences (a 0 and a 1). After that, a quantum computer isn’t too far behind. “It’s anywhere from two weeks to two years away,” he says. Once a quantum computer is up and running, data can be handled at even higher speeds — removing many of the constraints we deal with today.
Down a few flights of stairs was the IPTC. The IPTC lab’s goal is to improve the robustness, reliability, and efficiency of modern deployed networks.
One technology IPTC is currently working on allows a network to handle random surge of demands with software when the physical infrastructure isn’t capable of handling it. A short video simulation demonstrated what they were working on.
In the video, you can see a network being monitored for traffic surges that make sections of the network suffer. When this happens, the software pulls resources from other parts of the network to alleviate the pressure. During that rerouted time period, people are able to physically upgrade the network before switching it back to normal. Once the network is fixed, the software recognises this and resets to the normal traffic flow.
In order to perform these tests Bell has built their own mini network inside the IPTC:
Here is an Alcatel-Lucent 7750 Service Router going through a signal inhibitor to simulate a poor network signal for the software.
After the IPTC, we checked out the End to End Mobile Video Lab. It’s another way Alcatel-Lucent is looking to help reinforce cloud infrastructure.
Most of the data going through networks these days is video — and it eats away bandwidth and burdens the network, resulting in poor picture. This lab is looking at ways to help reduce the burden video streaming puts on networks, while providing an even better experience for the end user — you, watching Netflix at a peak hour, for example. They set up a model cellular network so their department could carry out simulated tests.
Similar to the IPTC, this simulated network is intentionally bogged down with multiple users streaming video, all to see how it affects the resilience of the signal:
The engineers then use that data to develop new ways of optimising video transmission at each stage of the network — from the antenna to the servers to your phones and tablets. For example, they have created software that can be baked right into the operating system of the mobile device, or embedded in an individual app that will help optimise the compression and transportation of video.
Other software sits at the network level, allowing for better management of data going out to different customers streaming simultaneously. The idea is that by developing these softwares now, Alcatel-Lucent will be able to handle the burden as video becomes an even heavier burden on the networks of the future.
The last highlight? A lensless camera. Using all but rudimentary equipment, Bell Labs has figured out a way to absorb images without a lens — using pure mathematics. Data can be captured or absorbed in a way that yields always in-focus, scalable resolution images from low amounts of data.
The camera currently requires an object to be completely still for ten minutes while the image is captured. Then it takes more time to assimilate data into an image. But the principle behind this technology will allow imaging (another huge data hog) to be significantly reduced down the road.
Another important point — and one that demonstrates how all the disparate technologies inside these labs are, ultimately, designed in symphony, is that the computations needed for this technology will be aided by quantum computing.
The scientists at Bell Labs, whether working on quantum computing or cameras, have an incredibly vivid idea of what the future will bring. Alcatel-Lucent is doing everything it can to make sure it has solutions ready for problems that aren’t even relevant yet. In short, it won’t be long before everyone in the world will be online — and all of that data will run through servers and onto mobile devices utilising the technology I saw under development here.
As I left that day, I passed a discretely-situated statue of the famous engineer and mathematician Claude Elwood Shannon. Shannon is the mind behind the principle of information theory, which he envisioned at Bell Labs decades ago. His theory goes that at a certain point, no more information may be passed through a certain medium. It has reached its maximum threshold.
The sculpture wasn’t as exciting as the first transistor or the first telecommunications satellite, but it was the perfect way to describe Bell Labs. Inside the labs I had just visited, scores of scientists working on wildly divergent technologies were all aiming for the same thing — the maximum information threshold.