This article originally appeared in Forbes as The Omni-Connected World: Bell Labs Plans For Future
Although it’s a shadow of the R&D powerhouse that brought us the transistor, laser, fiber optics and evidence of the Big Bang, Bell Labs is still around and planning for a future beyond the horizon of today’s technology. The latest evidence of the organization’s forward thinking is courtesy a new book by Marcus Weldon, the President of Bell Labsand CTO of parent company Alcatel-Lucent. Despite its cryptic title, The Future X Network isn’t about a top-secret project on the paranormal, but a look at where exponential trends in technology development, personal and device connectivity and data collection and analysis might take business, the global economy and society at large.
Weldon, who is in charge of Alcatel-Lucent’s technical strategy and product direction, said his motivation for writing the book was a perception that the ICT industrywas too focused on technology silos and not fully seeing or acknowledging the scale of changes wrought by a nexus of global, high-speed connectivity, billions of connected devices (IoT), cloud services and non-stop data streaming, collection and big data analytics. It’s a confluence of changes he contends will lead to a “new technological revolution” analogous to the agricultural or industrial epochs of prior centuries. He says our looming omni-connectivity is sufficiently profound to be disruptive on multiple levels: whether the way people live or how businesses operate.
It’s conventional wisdom that the Internet and mobile devices have transformed society, however the changes so far are merely the precursor to bigger things ahead. Weldon sees several elements fueling a new technological era:
- Instrumenting our world via connected, intelligent objects, i.e. IoT, is just beginning meaning that the number of devices networks must accommodate will be orders of magnitude higher than today.
- This translates to thousands of people and millions of machines per wireless cell area. Add in streaming video and rich data feeds and the network must massively scale both bandwidth and connection handling.
- The growth will happen very fast. Within five years network operators and cloud service providers must be ready for an explosion of clients and data.
The book identifies three elements to what Weldon admits could turn out to be an inflection point in already exponential traffic growth.
- The foundation for change will be a “new cloud-integrated network” to support instrumenting every aspect of our world.
- The catalyst for change is IoT and “the vast array of networked machines that will digitize our world in ways that have previously only been imagined.”
- The final, but necessary piece is the technology to make sense out of a cacophony of data. As Weldon sees it, for “digitization to produce value in the form of efficiency, <requires> the ability to capture and analyze the data streaming from these devices and effectively turn big data into the smallest amounts of actionable knowledge, what we refer to as augmented intelligence.”
It’s not surprising that someone from the communications industry sees the key change agent as connectivity, but like any good scientist, Weldon has data to support the thesis. In Kurzweilian fashion (c.f. The Singularity Is Near) Weldon’s book is full of graphs illustrating exponential technological growth, whether in the speed of network connections, CPU performance or total data being analyzed, and like any good futurist, he sees no reason the party won’t continue. Indeed, Weldon says we will need, and find ways to achieve, 100-times today’s network capacity by 2020 in order to achieve the vision of constantly connected, automated and assistive intelligent devices.
Most of the book is devoted to detailing the technological and architectural advancements Weldon believes are necessary, and is optimistic will happen over the next decade. For example, he says the IoT-fueled growth in connected clients and data requires a fundamentally different network design that can scale both capacity, but more importantly, the control (signaling) plane. Such massive scaling requires a highly distributed, virtualized and extremely low latency, i.e. millisecond-level control layer that’s much faster than LTE (which has signal latency in the tens of milliseconds).
Due to the transient nature of connected devices like cars or drones and the data itself (think video surveillance, security incidents, streaming entertainment), will required a dynamic network management backplane with distributed processing capability. Weldon calls the computational design an “edge cloud,” in which real-time digital automation is placed close to end users or devices, “providing local delivery of services while maintaining the critical aspect of global reach.”
Like any work of crystal ball gazing, The Future of X Network is less about offering prescriptive guidelines and more an invitation to reflective, spirited debate. The litany of narrowly targeted white papers that are a research lab’s bread and butter only cover the narrowest aspects of the host of related, but interdependent projects Weldon sees as necessary to deliver the services a world of connected people, machines and objects will require. Indeed, Weldon says his motivation was to describe a comprehensive technological agenda as a way to ignite industry discussion. By this measure, his book is successful and should be background reading for every technology leader and researcher looking to ride, and better yet, exploit a tsunami of technology-fueled change that Weldon believes will reshape business and society by “enabling, the augmented intelligent connection of everything and everyone.”