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President Bell Labs: what’s after smartphones?

BIO_j_kim-152x200.jpgIn this guest post, Jeong Kim, President Bell Labs, looks into the future and discusses the impact of video, sensors, the need for energy efficiency, and cloud services, and asks what form personal communications will take after smartphones. His answer may surprise you.

One hundred years ago, a telephone was a box on a wall. Now it’s a wallet-sized device that captures video, surfs the web, and manages hundreds of applications. Tomorrow you may not always need your own device: the environment around you will offer those personalized capabilities - and more.

Peering into the unknown

At Bell Labs, we research the technologies that will drive the next great innovations. This involves a fair bit of trying to envision the future. Our expertise in key technical areas provides a good guide, but of course, there are still many categories of unknowns.

One such category is known unknowns: knowing, for example, that the current explosion in the use of video on the Internet is straining the capacity of networks, but perhaps not yet knowing which specific technology will provide the best solution. Then there are the unknown unknowns - unknown needs that will be met by unknown technologies. These are among the many reasons why we persistently interact with customers and nourish our research capacity across multiple disciplines of science.

Even so, predicting the future is by no means a sure bet. Five years ago, who would have thought that so many people around the globe would spend so much time on social networks like MySpace and Facebook? And it’s certainly possible that in the next five years, other similarly unanticipated surprises will arise. Nevertheless, we can still identify several key trends likely to shape that future.

Video: a driving force for the networks

Video-based content - streamed to your desktop, your laptop, your smartphone, wherever - will be an even more fundamental component of how we communicate in 2015. I realized how important video had become last year when I asked my daughter which website she visited the most. Her response: “Youtube.” It’s where she does her learning - whether how to play the guitar or speak Spanish. I had always thought of Youtube as a substitute for TV; I never considered its other possible uses. It can be used to share ideas, to find out how to perform a task, or where students can watch lectures they might have missed.

The video boom is not just about Youtube - like sites. Video conferencing applications like Skype have become increasingly popular and part of our everyday interactions. I believe communications will migrate over the next five years to far more ‘immersive’ experiences that make it seem as if we are all sharing the same physical place even while being continents apart.

Many, many sensors - everywhere

Most of us connect over a network of networks - the most common being the Internet. Usually we go looking for information and these networks take us to it. But an alternative pattern is emerging, one in which a network of sensors continuously gathers information and, if relevant, pushes it out to us. What sort of sensors? Some will detect motion or sounds; others temperature or chemicals. They might employ radio-frequency ID (rFID) devices or video technologies. When certain conditions occur, these sensor networks will trigger an alert over the Internet to other machines or people.

We’ll see these networks in our homes, along our roads, in our cars, and on our very person. Sometime after 2015, I can imagine sensors so small they reside in our bloodstream and form a self-organizing network that can detect abnormal events, sending messages to our doctor’s office or to another device in our body authorized to take corrective action. This is the ‘somatic network’, a network that operates in the body. Sound far-fetched? There are already numerous implanted sensors in the market for detecting the movements of replacement joints, or measuring electrical pulses of the heart.

The value of the cloud

For some, ‘cloud computing’ is just the latest name for services in which you access a remote computer instead of processing on your own computer. that’s not quite right. The cloud is like taking all of the parts of a super computer, scattering them to the wind and still using it as if it was a single asset right next to you. All of the complex synchronizations among those parts are retained in spite of being physically dispersed.

The beauty of this is that you’re no longer confined to the capabilities of your one machine, or cluster of machines as is the case in a data center. So when you need more computing power, or more storage, instead of buying expensive hardware and plunking it in the corner, you just reach out to more pieces in the cloud for only as long as you need them. The capabilities of the cloud allow those pieces to be fully integrated and synchronized with your own resources.

Companies that provide communication services are beginning to use cloud architectures in their own networks. By 2015, many of those service providers will likely of fer highly reliable cloud resources to consumers.

Energy efficiency will be vital

Throughout the information technology landscape, there is a new menace stalking computers and data centers. I’m not referring to viruses or malware, but rather the costs of the power to run ever-faster and more powerful computers. Dollars or euros are only part of those costs. The larger concerns are the associated heat that can literally melt processors and the unsustainable level of carbon emissions from the generation of that power.

As they serve growing numbers of mobile users, video consumers and data centers, these costs have risen to levels where many service providers are now considering radical changes in their network infrastructures. This is one of the reasons for the strong interest in Alcatel -Lucent ‘s recently announced lightradio™, which doubles network capacity while halving energy consumption. Programs such as the Greentouch ™ initiative, whose goal is to improve networks’ energy efficiency by a factor of 1,000 will also play a major role in achieving a sustainable future.

After 2015: communicating without a personal device?

Let me conclude with a slightly controversial opinion. I can envision a scenario where people no longer fully depend on their own smartphones or other personal computing devices. Rather, as they make themselves known via sensor networks, they interact with connected information displays and other appliances located throughout their environment - no matter where they find themselves. Individuals have access to all of the same capabilities (or “apps”) and personal settings they would at home or in the office.

Sessions are transferred from device to device, so that the last page of an e-book you were reading at home is the first page that appears on a device at the hotel you’re visiting the next day. It’s a compelling vision in which we can enjoy all of these capabilities without being limited by one’s personal device.

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