A Lucky Hit
He’s seen R&D done the old Bell Labs way and in the new, market-driven style. Now research vice president of Bellcore, Lucky thinks broadly and deeply about how ideas get from lab to market.
The world was simpler back when young electrical engineer Bob Lucky started work at Bell Labs. Telephones were sturdy black appliances with dials. Fibers were something clothes were made of, and webs were for spiders and duck’s feet. Computers were huge, expensive and scarce.
Fast-forward to 1998, and Lucky still exudes awe at all that has come to pass in the intervening years. But his awe is not that of the ingenuous outsider, since Lucky had no small hand in this rapid progress. He is credited with inventing the adaptive equalizer-a technique for correcting distortion in telephone signals that is still used in virtually all high-speed data transmission. He literally wrote the book on data communications, writing a text that was for years the bible of the industry. But outside the community of communications engineers, Lucky is best known as a sharp and witty commentator on the ways technology infiltrates our lives. He radiates enthusiasm for technologies that he likes (such as e-mail) and disdain for those he doesn’t (such as voice mail).
Since leaving Bell Labs in 1992, Lucky has been corporate vice president for applied research at Bell Communications Research, or Bellcore. As the research arm of the telephone companies, Bellcore is on the front lines of the telecommunications revolution. Lucky spoke with Technology Review senior editor Herb Brody in his office in Red Bank, N.J.
TR: What do you think makes an organization innovative, and how has that changed over the time you’ve been involved with R&D?
LUCKY: Innovation is a difficult thing. I have lost some of my faith through the years in all of the systems that we know about. I worked a long time at the old Bell Labs, where you’d hire the best people, you’d give them money and let them do their thing. We sponsored a lot of intellectual quests that way. There used to be a plaque over the entrance to the Murray Hill Lab of Bell Labs with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell. It said something like: leave the path and dive into the woods, and you’ll be surprised at what you find. The idea was to go out there and explore, and to build the best telephone network there is. We had no conception of making money. It was almost a religious thing. There was an honest respect for science and technology and the days would go by with arguments over scientific points. It was the way life should be.
TR: Of course, this system produced some dead ends as well as some fabulous technology.
LUCKY: It certainly did. With R&D decoupled from the market, a lot of ideas fell on barren earth and never grew up. And ideas by themselves are pretty worthless-somebody’s got to take them and make it happen. Over the years, I have gained a lot more respect for the people who turn ideas into realities. Now we’re in a world where ideas are judged only by market utility. And in the market world, you don’t allow people to wander in the woods. I regret this, but I can’t afford to have people who are just crashing around looking at crazy things. Even though, historically, these are the kinds of people who make the biggest breakthroughs.
TR: What’s an example of the old system of innovation going astray?
LUCKY: Picturephone is a classic case. It was decided that this was the way that communication would go. The funds were immediately made available-armies of scientists and engineers were mobilized, the technology breakthroughs were scheduled and made. The service was offered. Then nobody wanted the thing. But that was OK according to our mindset at the time. If picturephone was what was right, we could do it, because we had total control over it.
TR: Conventional wisdom these days is that the market has to play a much stronger role in driving technology and in setting research directions-that this is how to make innovation productive.
LUCKY: That is the theory, and it’s generally true that the market stimulates innovation. It’s hard to know where the truth lies because we’re not running a controlled experiment. But I do worry that the pure market focus will lead us to ignore some research of great value. I also think that in places like Silicon Valley, the pressures to make money have become too strong.
TR: Isn’t that what business is about?
LUCKY: Primarily, but not entirely. A lot of the innovators that I’ve known have been driven by the desire to produce something that helped people in their lives or work. Financial reward was important to them, but not their overwhelmingly dominant incentive. Now I get a sense that the whole object is to start a company and take it public and make a lot of money. This really discourages me.
TR: In telecommunications, the field you know best, is industry dropping the ball anywhere?
LUCKY: One of the things that everybody wants is broadband access to the home. And if you were running the world, you’d say, hey, let’s just put fiber out there in the homes, we’ll have all the bandwidth we want. But that’s not happening because of the risk of stranded investment. You dig up the streets, you put the fiber in and a guy comes along with a wireless solution and you’ve dug up the streets, the money is gone. The risk of investment here stops this from happening. So there’s a case of the market prohibiting a development that everybody agrees is needed. Also, I’m bothered that senior management is still essentially clueless about the Internet. According to a recent poll, more than 60 percent of executives think the Internet is owned by a corporation; 23 percent think it’s part of Microsoft. The good news is that 98 percent of sixth-graders polled knew that nobody owns the Net.
The Net from Nowhere
TR: For most people, the Internet arrived on the scene a few years ago with little advance warning. What does this tell us about the emergence of world-changing technologies?
LUCKY: The Web is an astounding example of lack of foresight. Nobody foresaw this-in industry, or anywhere else. In retrospect, the Web is the most obvious thing you ever heard of, and it is such a world-class idea.
TR: But the telecommunications industry was looking the other way, basically.
LUCKY: Yes, the phone companies were fixated on centralized systems. We had a number of home information system trials, with video-on-demand as the main attraction. Nobody thought, hey, why don’t we just create an infrastructure and let the users supply the informational content-which of course is what has happened. Industry really didn’t have a lot to do with it. Also, one big reason the Web took off the way it did was that Mosaic-the first graphical Web browser-was developed at the University of Illinois and was made available for free. This turned out to be key, because nobody is going to buy browser software when there’s nothing to browse. That set a model that Netscape and then Microsoft got locked into, where browsers were free and users generated information. I suppose you could have made picturephone ubiquitous too, if you mailed a free one to everybody overnight. But what business would ever come up with a model that revolved around giving away your product?
TR: This kind of thing reinforces how difficult technology forecasting is.
LUCKY: Yes, and I have stopped consciously trying to predict the future. I’m out of that game. I’m a member of an industry that has been driven by several compelling visions over the last decades. One was picturephone. Another was home information services-mainly video-on-demand. Finally, there is ISDN [integrated services data network]. These are visions that mesmerized the telecommunications and computer industries, and they ended up being just plain wrong. The hardest part is not so much predicting what technologies will come about but in foreseeing how people will use them. That’s where we have been wrong all the time.
TR: A lot of industry pundits still can’t resist crystal ball gazing, though.
LUCKY: I know. I was at a meeting a few years ago at Microsoft where Bill Gates gave us his vision of the way things were going. I wrote it all down. I think it has all turned out to be wrong. My old boss, George Heilmeier, tells about being in a bookstore last year and seeing this giant stack of Gates’ book-The Road Ahead- by the checkout counter. On each book was a sticker saying that it was “recently updated to include the Internet.” I mean, if you can’t see the Web coming, what good are you?
TR: Kind of makes you wonder what else is going to blindside us.
LUCKY: Yes. But you know, there hasn’t been anything else of that magnitude for a while. Maybe the Web is it for a while. Maybe it’s like that punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution, where you have long periods of stability interspersed with occasional epochs of intense changes. Maybe we’re in an equilibrium state, and nobody has a vision beyond the Web right now. Maybe the Web will turn into a broadcast medium and take over from radio and television-who knows? I don’t, and I don’t believe anybody who says they do.
TR: Do you agree with many pundits that the next computer revolution will come from speech-recognition technology?
LUCKY: That’s a vision that people have had for a long time. But we’re not even close to having a Hal-like machine that can converse with us intelligently. And frankly, I’m not even sure I want to talk to my computer. This might be another example of an equilibrium state; maybe the mouse-icons-windows interface is going to be around for a very long time. Nothing better has come along.
TR: Another proposal to broaden computer use is to market inexpensive “network computers” that derive their power from the Net.
LUCKY: I think this is a dumb idea. When I give talks, I often ask the audience, how many of you would like one of these? Nobody raises their hand. It’s basically a control issue. Corporate CIOs would like to control the information infrastructure.
TR: Do you have any regrets about where technology has brought us?
LUCKY: Well, we benefit from the connectedness of the Web and e-mail and pagers and cell phones and everything. But I resent that these information tentacles are reaching out for you all the time, sucking you in and pulling you down. I find this a bigger and bigger personal burden. I just can’t seem to have it both ways. I thought early in my career that the goal of telephony was to have the Dick Tracy wristwatch phone-until the day I realized that when I have one, the world can call me at any time. I don’t want that-the world’s a big place.
TR: Is this part of the fashionable griping about “information overload?”
LUCKY: It’s not quite that simple. With e-mail, for instance, it’s annoying to have to deal with too many messages-100, say, is too many. But if there are too few, then the world has forgotten about you, and that’s scary. If I come in in the morning and there are only 10 e-mails, I get really nervous. The ideal number is somewhere in between-probably around 25.
TR: A similar tradeoff applies when you’re doing searches on the Web, doesn’t it?
LUCKY: Yes-I either get 10,000 hits or zero, and I never seem to find what I’m looking for. One expert told me that the search engine wasn’t failing-I was just incompetent. I didn’t know how to craft my queries. She may be right, but I said, look, that’s your problem. You’re giving me this complex query language stuff and expecting me to be able to master it. You’re just not meeting the market demand for a really easy, powerful search tool. And this is important-search engines are the key to the universe right now.
TR: Do you look at the Web as a giant library?
LUCKY: I think it can be a lot better than that. It’s really a library filled with people. If you tap into the wisdom of the people in the library, together with the books, then that’s what will make a real difference. Often in life when you want to find out something, you ask friends and you ask experts in that field, and they point you to stuff that they think is good. But the search engines on the Net are sort of disembodied right now-they have none of that wisdom in them about what might be really good out there.
TR: What do you fear is being lost in the digital age?
LUCKY: We’re not producing artifacts of our work in progress anymore. Go to the British Museum and look at their manuscript section. They have handwritten things from Mozart and Shakespeare. When you see the Bach manuscripts and you see that he scratched out that note and changed it to the one that you now know-that’s awesome. And when you write on a computer, that kind of document doesn’t exist.