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Bell Labs head hopes to turn brain drain into gain

The Israeli branch of the venerable American research firm has big plans for future technology

The Alcatel-Lucent's team outside the company's Israel headquarters (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The Alcatel-Lucent's team outside the company's Israel headquarters (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The opening of Bell Labs in Israel could be an important factor in reversing the country’s brain drain, according to Danny Raz, director of the newest outpost of the venerated American technology organization.

Many of the top technology researchers who now seek their fortunes abroad because there are few positions available in Israel may be interested to know that, as Raz said, “the people we are hiring for Bell Labs Israel are all PhDs in computer science, engineering, and other science-oriented disciplines.”

“These are people who would be very comfortable working in research positions in Israeli universities, which are few and far between. We offer them the opportunity to do that high-level research outside the university. Many of them would love to stay in Israel – and many abroad would love to come back – and those are the people we are looking for to develop the big ideas and technologies of tomorrow.”

Brain drain, in which top scholars leave the country because they can’t find research positions – which are mostly available only at universities – is a major problem for Israel. In a recent study, the Taub Center for Social Research called it “unparalleled, with 29 Israeli scholars in the U.S. for every 100 remaining at home” in 2008 (the most recent information available). That’s far more than the runner-up, Canada, which lost just 11.5% of its researchers to the US. Compared with statistics from five years earlier, the brain drain rate in most countries had fallen, except for Israel, where it had risen.

That’s the problem Raz hopes to help reverse.

Often called “America’s idea factory,” Bell Labs has a long and storied history of innovation and invention. Originally the engineering department of the former monopoly American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), Bell Labs researchers developed many of the building blocks of modern electronics and computers. In 1927, a Bell team transmitted the first television images; in 1937, they transmitted the first stereo signals via radio; a Bell scientist invented the photovoltaic cell in the early 1940; and in 1947, Bell scientists created the transistor, an invention that made modern computing possible. Later inventions included TDMA and CDMA digital cellular telephone technology, the compiled C programming language, the first single-chip 32-bit microprocessor, and much more.

Danny Raz, Director of the new Israel branch of Bell Labs (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Raz, director of the new Israel branch of Bell Labs (Photo credit: Courtesy)

After several changes of ownership following the breakup of AT&T during the 1980s, Bell Labs now belongs to French telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent. Last May, company CEO Michel Combes came to Israel to announced the establishment of Bell Labs Israel.

At least some of Bell Labs’ discoveries – like cosmic microwave background radiation – were accidental, with researchers forging a new technology as they were searching for solutions to some other issue. That has been a hallmark of Bell Labs throughout its nearly nine decades, and that is the spirit that guides the Israel team too, said Raz.

“Until now, the various communication components in a network were tied to hardware. One of the things we are working on is separating the hardware and the software, so we can run these components on cheaper hardware, or bundle them in a single box.

“But there are many aspects of that software that are dependent on the architecture of that hardware. What happens when you have the different components working in the same box, each trying to achieve a different ‘goal’ – such as routing traffic, security, messaging, etc? Since no one has ever tried this unbundling and rebundling of software and hardware, no one knows. We believe that the things we discover in this research will have an important impact on the way networks – and maybe other things, as well – will work in the future,” said Raz.

Raz is himself a Bell Labs alumni, and until recently a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Technion. He has been published widely in the area of network, system, and cloud resource management and has a strong working relationship with a number of leading global companies in Israel, receiving the IBM Faculty Award, and consulting with Google.

Raz wants to see more Israelis like him remain in the country, and work do the kind of work he is doing.

“We are starting with a small staff, about 20 people, but those 20 people are the ones the country needs most,” said Raz. “A PhD in computer science is ‘worth’ hundreds of BA degree holders, in terms of the impact their work will have on the Israeli tech industry. Eventually we could grow, but just as important is the statement that we are making. If a major research firm like Bell Labs believes Israel can help it build the future, then other research organizations will, I believe, follow in our wake. In that way, the establishment of Bell Labs here could be an important factor in reversing the brain drain Israel has faced in recent years.”

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