The Next Israeli Nobel?

For its ninth Nobel, Bell Labs counts on Israeli tech

Marcus Weldon, the current president of one of the most celebrated technology centers in the world, has high hopes for his local team

Marcus Weldon (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Marcus Weldon (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Over the years, Bell Labs has won eight Nobel Prizes – more than any other tech lab – and Marcus Weldon, the current president of Bell Labs, fully expects the organization to win a ninth, based on the work that will be done by its new Israel location.

Bell Labs on Monday night inaugurated its Israeli branch – the group’s first out-of-the-US location – at the Kfar Saba offices of Alcatel-Lucent, the multinational communications firm that now owns the organization. The Israel lab actually began work several months ago, but got its official kick-off when Weldon, along with other top Bell Labs officials and alumni, gave the Israel site their official stamp of approval.

Often called “America’s Idea Factory,” Bell Labs has a long and storied history of innovation and invention. Originally the engineering department of “the phone company” — 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, it 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 UNIX operating system, the first single-chip 32-bit microprocessor, and much more.

Bell Labs remained a part of AT&T until 1996, when the company spun it off into a new company named Lucent Technologies, which in 2006 merged with communications company Alcatel, and created Alcatel-Lucent. Worldwide, the company has over 70,000 employees, about 50,000 of them in research and development, and the company operates Bell Labs facilities in about a dozen countries.

Between its invention of the transistor, the microprocessor, and UNIX, it’s fair to say that Bell Labs was responsible for the computer revolution, said Weldon – and the company was gearing up for the next revolution, the one in communications, he added. “We won those past Nobels by working to meet ‘grand challenges,’ developing technology to solve problems in important projects, and using that technology to change the world.”

Typical of that, he said, was the 1969 invention of the CCD – the charge-coupled device, a light-sensitive integrated circuit that stores and displays data for images, and is the basis of the digital camera. “The researchers who invented the CCD, Willard Boyle and George Smith, were looking for a solution to improving semiconductor bubble memory,” but ended up being awarded their Nobel Prize for inventing the CCD in 2009, after it became clear just how their research changed the world, said Weldon.

The Next Big Thing in tech is the “Internet of Things” — in which everything connects to the cloud, making everything from cars to refrigerators to doors easier to control and integrate in a “smart digital lifestyle,” said Weldon.

And Weldon believes that the Israeli tech infrastructure can provide the talent and knowledge to build that integrated network – with Nobel-worthy work.

“In the past, we sucked people out of their home towns and countries to New Jersey, where they worked at our headquarters in order to create new technologies,” said Weldon. “But we realized we were cheating ourselves, missing out on great tech in other places – so we decided to branch out to the places where innovation was being done. And the first place we decided to locate a new branch was in Israel, because of the level of innovation being done here.”

For Weldon, Bell Labs’ greatest days – and greatest accomplishments – are still ahead of it, and the Israel branch will be integral, if not crucial, to achieving those accomplishments.

“If the 1990s was the great era of the network, then the next decade will be even greater because of the cloud,” said Weldon. “We are all going to be connected, and we have a lot to do in order to get to that point.”

Israel, because of its innovation, especially in networking, “is a prime place to be creating that connected future,” he said. “The work the Israel team will be doing is classic Bell Labs. We have grand hopes for the work to be done here, and I have no doubt it will lead to a Nobel Prize, as the team helps build the great networking future.”

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