Interview with Marcus Weldon –  Nokia Bell Labs

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Interview with Marcus Weldon – Nokia Bell Labs

Marcus Weldon was appointed as the 13th president of Bell Labs, the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent, in 2013 and became the corporate chief technology officer of Nokia when Bell Labs was acquired as part of the Alcatel-Lucent takeover in 2016.

by Gerhard Kafka

Marcus Weldon CEO Bell Nokia Labs

Born in the UK and having earned a first-class honors degree in chemistry and computer science at King’s College London in 1990, Thomas Weldon moved to the US to study for a PhD in chemistry at Harvard University before joining Bell Labs’ physical sciences research laboratory in 1995. He won multiple awards for his work there before becoming a member of technical staff in the materials research laboratory.

After the spin-out of AT&T Technologies, which included Bell Labs, as Lucent Technologies in 1996, Weldon focused on early Fiber to the Home technologies and architectures. This led to his subsequent appointment as chief technology officer of the broadband solutions business unit of Lucent in 2004. After the merger with Alcatel in 2006, he became the CTO of the broadband access business unit of Alcatel-Lucent and progressed to become its corporate CTO in 2009. In 2013, after the departure of Jeong Kim, he added president of Bell Labs to his corporate role and was appointed CTO for Nokia when it acquired Alcatel-Lucent in 2016. His brief was to restore Nokia Bell Labs’ status as an innovative leader in information and communications technologies by focusing on solving the key industry challenges.

In recent years, Weldon has inaugurated the Nokia Bell Labs Prize to encourage external innovators to collaborate with the company’s researchers. He has also engaged in numerous industry leadership activities such as the FCC’s Open Internet Advisory Committee and the launch of the European Union’s Partnership for 5G Wireless Research. His focus on rejuvenating Bell Labs has led to the invention of foundational networking technologies and systems for the cloud networking era. In July 2014, Bell Labs announced it had broken “the broadband Internet speed record” with its 10Gbps XG-Fast technology, which has led to the Future X Network initiative. Bell Labs describes Future X as a digital ecosystem, driven by machines and sensors connecting to augmented intelligence, running over an ultra-high-capacity, ultra-low-latency, hyper scalable, dynamic network infrastructure.

Outside the purely technical field, Nokia Bell Labs works closely with musicians to investigate the interplay between music and technology. In April 2016, Weldon relaunched a series of collaborations with artists, known as Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), which uses the concept of a Human Digital Orchestra that allows the audience to interact with, and modify, artistic performances and installations. Smart Industry took the opportunity to talk to Marcus Weldon about his views on the future of communications.

Please share with our readers the Nokia Bell Labs mission and its research focus.

Nokia Bell Labs is the world-renowned industrial research arm of Nokia. For more than 90 years now, we have been solving the communications and connectivity challenges that confront humankind. We do this by looking forward to the future and considering “what should be” in terms of human enhancement and then understanding the limits and boundaries that exist to prevent this vision from becoming a reality. We then work from the “future back” to solve the critical problems identified. This approach often leads to groundbreaking discoveries as well as commercial innovations – reflected in the eight Nobel Prizes, Turing Medals, Japan Prizes, many national medals of science and engineering, and even an Oscar, two Grammys, and an Emmy.

We are currently working on a set of disruptive innovations that are enabled by 5G networking technologies, ranging from new sensing technologies, through novel networking systems and platforms, to new computing and distributed cloud systems and new artificial intelligence and machine learning tools and techniques. You’ll start seeing end-to-end 5G solutions appearing soon, starting in the US this year, followed by large-scale commercial deployments elsewhere beginning the middle of 2019. We will also see 5G become one of the foundational wireless technologies for the automation of factories, warehouses, mines, and other industrial settings.

Now, as part of Nokia, is there any change in the company’s strategy?

In addition to serving as president of Bell Labs, I’m also CTO of Nokia so I help set the strategic technology direction for the company. The company’s strategy has always been to be the leader in communications and connectivity solutions and that continues today. Recently, the focus has moved beyond human and web services communications to include machine communications, which brings a new set of challenges in terms of very low latency and very high reliability. The focus of Bell Labs is, as ever, to conduct disruptive research and invent game-changing solutions to critical problems in communications and connectivity to improve lives and enable new economic paradigms.

Could you give us a short overview of recent research initiatives leading to significant changes in information technology and communications?

In the last few years alone, Bell Labs innovations have led to a radical evolution in traditional wired networks by creating ways to achieve the ultimate limit of communications (the so-called “Shannon limit”) over copper wires by advanced interference cancellation called “vectoring.” So it is now possible to transmit data at 1Gbps over 100-year-old copper wires, with a path to 10Gbps.

The focus of Bell Labs has always been to conduct disruptive research and come up with revolutionary solutions.

In the optical domain, we invented a completely new way to transmit data at 100Gbps and beyond over optical fiber, using advanced signal processing and coherent detection. We also pioneered massive MIMO [multiple input, multiple output] radio transmission that will form the basis of all 5G radio networks, and we have also created novel IP plus optical routing algorithms for optimized packet transport, as well as leading augmented and artifcial intelligence tools and techniques – building from the invention of convolutional neural networks (CNNs) at Bell Labs in the late 1990s. And that’s just a sampling of our recent innovations.

Please share with us some of Bell Labs’ current research projects.

We are working to augment every aspect of human existence, so that humans can be continuously assisted and optimized using a combination of new noninvasive, connected physical, physiological, and even neurological sensing technologies, as well as machine and robotic assistants. We’re working on new quantum computing technologies and new operating systems for distributed cloud systems, new device technologies for ultra-high-performance signal and packet processing, as well as new “augmented intelligence” tools and platforms. And, of course, we continue to innovate in all aspects of communications and networking, as we always have, but with a new focus on ultra-low [1 ms] latency, ultra-high reliability [99.999 percent and beyond], and ultra-high capacity. We’re even working on “virtual teleportation” and new mixed reality applications – and we’re building a network on the moon next year.

Why did it take more than 90 years before Bell Labs published its first book, The Future X Network: A Bell Labs Perspective?

Bell Labs researchers have written or edited thousands of books, and many more have been written about us and our unique history of innovation, but we decided to write a book as an organization as a whole because we saw that we’re at the nexus of a human technological revolution that will be very different than any prior era. We thought it was important to share that vision with all. We will be publishing an extension of this Future X vision to cover different industrial transformations later this year.

What are the drivers transforming human existence in the near future?

We are entering an era of being connected where augmenting human and machine intelligence will be used to sense, control, and automate everything. We believe we are on the verge of the fourth industrial revolution – a revolution that will be driven by the need to automate everything to save and “create” time. At its heart, this is a technological revolution driven by machines and sensors connecting to augmented intelligence over a massively scalable, ultra-high-capacity, ultra-low-latency, dynamic new network infrastructure, which we call “The Future X Network. The net effect will be a massive increase in productivity with machines assisting and augmenting humans in both repetitive physical tasks and complex intellectual tasks.

Can you envision some revolutionary technologies, or even disruptive innovations, influencing our lives?

I believe that the current consumer driven digital platforms will be superseded by two sets of new value platforms, focused on augmenting how people perceive and understand their world and how to control and automate it. These platforms will redefine human existence in the next decades. Over the past 20 years, web services have redefined how people shop, read, consume media, find information, and interact. But, in reality, these services have just created digital replacements for existing capabilities, increasing convenience but not manifestly changing human existence. Moreover, service and experience quality and user privacy have been sacrificed for the sake of convenience and the offer of “free” services. This has resulted in no net increase in quality of life or productivity and the initial utility has eroded over time.

Marcus Weldon CEO Bell Nokia Labs - Prize

Marcus Weldon awards the 2017 Bell Labs Prize to Kaushik Sengupta, Assistant Professor in electrical engineering at Princeton University.

The next phase of existence will be driven by the digitization of all physical systems (including humans) and the creation of new machine automations to assist humans in every “scale” task. This will result in two new platform types – platforms that assist humans with perception of the physical world, and platforms that assist humans to control the physical world. These platforms will couple to existing digital web platforms created during Industry 3.0 to create the fundamental new value set for Industry 4.0. The critical characteristics of these new cyber physical platforms are the ability to support and connect a massive scale of low-latency, real-time data streams from a multitude of sensors, with augmented cognition systems that assist humans in creating new understanding and optimized outcomes.

What is your perspective of the future of communications and its key technology elements?

The next industrial revolution will be driven by the digitization of all physical systems to create unprecedented levels of awareness and knowledge. This will allow the augmentation of every process and system, increasing efficiency and productivity – and ultimately creating time.

The existing network architecture must radically transform to meet these needs, due to the massive increase in capacity and reliability, and massive decrease in latency, required. This new Future X network will have a number of profound architectural changes, such as moving from a highly centralized to a massively distributed network architecture, and moving from billions of smart devices to trillions of simple sensors, as well as new intelligent control algorithms and systems.

Which development do you see for the fixed wide area network?

We are at the beginning of a new era of access networks, as industrial automation and new infrastructure and information systems will require capacities of 1Gbps to 10Gbps and latencies of one microsecond to 10 microseconds, with ultra-high reliability and adaptability. We have exhausted the use of the traditional low band [<1GHz] spectrum, so radical changes are required in multiple dimensions, such as utilizing massive antenna arrays to form wireless beams to increase spectral efficiency by a factor of five.

In addition, we will use new very high-frequency spectrum bands (so called mm Wave bands) which can support a massive amount of new capacity over short distances (up to 100 m). The result will be a new highly converged, massively scalable wide area network that connects a multitude of dedicated [local] industrial networks, supporting mission-critical application flows that are dynamically managed by new augmented cognition systems.

Will 5G replace most of the current mobile networks?

No, it will augment and massively extend current [LTE] wireless networks. 5G will deliver extreme broadband, ultra-robust low-latency connectivity, and massive networking to support many different use cases and business models. For mobile operators, 5G will enable a new level of network economy and a leap forward in network efficiency – building on the currently deployed LTE macro network infrastructure that provides global coverage and capacity for consumers and businesses, and an increasing number of simple machines and sensors today.

Are there still challenges in the development of the fifth mobile network generation?

The next revolution will be driven by the need to automate everything to save and “create” time.

While we have the first 5G products for enhanced mobile broadband available today, continued innovations are needed to achieve lower costs, higher throughput, and new levels of dynamism and automation. There are also important challenges to realize new 5G wireless solutions that have the same high reliability and the same low latency as the cables that connect robots and control servers in factories today. At Bell Labs, we are working with manufacturing industry partners to pioneer novel solutions in all these dimensions. As one example, we have recently demonstrated, for the first time, the control of a robot with a millisecond response time over a 5G-type wireless connection.

And can you imagine a sixth generation – again with new features never seen before?

We have seen a new generation of a mobile network about every decade and this will be no different after 5G. In the course of the next ten years there will be so many innovations in technology, architecture, and applications that it is hard to predict what 6G will look like. But there are many new technologies like terahertz transmission for hyper-local, hyper capacity, dynamic, self-coding mesh networks that are self-deploying and self-optimizing; and new “body area” or in vivo, networks, as well as, of course, extraterrestrial networks.

What are the challenges in the field of Internet of Things (IoT) and what further research and development is required to interconnect billions of devices?

As already mentioned, wireless connections with millisecond latency and ultra-reliability will be key for critical IoT applications, like control of vehicles or robots. Such applications also require very accurate localization methods. We need highly energy efficient wireless solutions for sensors and other devices that need to operate for ten years on a single battery charge or solar power – drop and forget. We expect a 100 times increase in the number of devices and, hence, need new systems that can handle the massive scale of connections with dynamic scaling, adaptation, and automation.

Do you believe in the realization of fully autonomous vehicles on the road, rail, and in the air?

I believe that this will happen, first in places where well-organized “platoons” can form, for example on highways (trucks and cars), in rail systems and in shipping, and aerial systems (drones). For such systems, the number of variables and scenarios that need to be assessed, predicted, and managed are fewer, and the interworking with legacy [current] vehicles minimized.

Although a great deal of progress has been made in autonomous systems, a lot more innovation is required until these systems are truly autonomous, as human tolerance for machine errors and accidents will be far lower than for the equivalent human control. We believe that private industrial networks will be one of the first areas to adopt many autonomous technologies, given the well-defined environments in which they operate. For example, we are currently working on innovative solutions to enable autonomous operation of trucks in mines and cranes in harbors, as well as robotic systems inside warehouses and factories.

Bell Labs created eight Nobel Prize found the new Bell Labs Prize for winners in the past. Why did you Innovation in Information and Communications Networking?

We originated the Bell Labs Prize to attract researchers across the world and to allow them to collaborate with Bell Labs on new disruptive innovations. The goal was not only to connect with the largest possible pool of innovators but also to give them the benefit of the unique capabilities in Bell Labs to help realize their ideas. In the five years since we launched the prize, we have seen over a thousand proposals which have led to collaborations with more than a hundred leading researchers, which, in turn, has led to many new game-changing innovations that are currently in the works, or have recently been incorporated into our products or research projects.

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