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AT&T Labs' Brain Drain 347

Posted by timothy
from the flux-is-constant dept.
Frisky070802 writes "The Newark Star-Ledger has an article on the brain drain at AT&T Labs, which laid off close to half its researchers two years ago this month, another good fraction last spring, and has lost many of the rest through voluntary departures. The article claims that only Microsoft might have the money to fund basic research as Bell Labs did years ago, though many (including me) would put IBM in the same camp. It cites problems at AT&T, ranging from researchers paying their own way to present at conferences to a loss of free espresso and bottled water. Many luminaries, such as Lorrie Faith Cranor, Avi Rubin, and Bjarne Stroustrup, are quoted --- with Stroustrup saying the lab was "mugged" by Wall Street. (Rumor has it that the losses haven't stemmed, with more top-notch researchers going to academia in the coming months.)" (Non-registration ZIP and age demographic collection.)
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AT&T Labs' Brain Drain

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  • by mark99 (459508) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:00PM (#8629491) Journal
    They laid off two-thirds of the company. It would be odd if Research wasn't similarly decimated (triated?).

    I wonder if the "Open Source" is picking up the slack in basic research these days. I don't think Universitys have been too productive in my lifetime.
    • by godIsaDJ (644331) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:06PM (#8629529)
      I wonder if the "Open Source" is picking up the slack in basic research these days. I don't think Universitys have been too productive in my lifetime.

      Now that's way too much to expect. If research was easy surely everyone would win nobel prizes??
      You cannot really expect research to spring up from nowhere just like open source software, the background needed is completely different.
      While becoming a *very* competent developer/architect etc. is withing reach of most smart people around with sweat and hard work, becoming a research is definitely not! Not many people got what it takes and the willpower to gather the knowledge you need just to get started...
      My 2 cents...

      • by jcr (53032) <jcr@[ ].com ['mac' in gap]> on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:16PM (#8629571) Journal
        If research was easy surely everyone would win nobel prizes??

        Your question ignores the very limited number of Nobel prizes available.

        Regardless of how many poeple may produce very significant work, only a handful will be recognized by the Nobel comittee every year.

        -jcr

    • But is open source really 'picking up the slack' that fully blown, say again **paid** research is?

      Most people who contribute to open source have other jobs and can't spend huge amounts of time with the project they start/help out at. And when they move on to other projects someone else has to play catchu-up and figure out the source before any more progress is made.

      Open source projects need a constant revenue stream and the model needs to acknowledge that as donations don't seem to crack the honey-pot eno
    • by Rinikusu (28164) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:23PM (#8629619)
      It depends. Bell Labs has been, historically, one of the premier research centers in the WORLD. The kind of prestige that brings by constantly pushing envelopes, by constantly being published, by constantly attracting the best and brightest in the industry to your research facilities is almost priceless. These best and brightest also create the foundations of your future product lines, patent licensing income, etc etc. Without products and constant innovation, it could be argued that you no longer become viable (or as viable). Dell is a huge exception to this, as they indirectly benefit from the huge R&D Intel and others invest into their own product lines. But imagine if Intel and the others just sat back and waited for someone else to innovate so they could roll those new ideas into their product line. Dell would quickly stagnate, as would the others. (To be fair, Dell does spend quite a bit on R&D, but overall it's just a tiny fraction of their total income, unlike folks like IBM or Apple, who rely upon their R&D to provide innovative ideas to push the envelope, to use the parlance of our times). (As an aside, I wonder if their R&D expenses also include their packaging/distribution innovations? Dell certainly has "revolutionized" the "Just In Time" manufacturing techniques that everyone indirectly benefits from). What I'm getting at, is if everyone were to do things the Dell (or even Walmart) way, then the world would quickly become stagnated and..bland.

      I'd think that R&D might take a hit, but you don't get rid of your best minds or make conditions unbearable for them just to save on salaries. They provide the long term product line that your future profits will rely upon.
      • by GGardner (97375)
        These best and brightest also create the foundations of your future product lines, patent licensing income, etc etc.

        If this were true, Bell Labs wouldn't be shutting down. The truth is, none of the world-class pure research labs (Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, TJ Watson, etc.) do a good job of helping their parent companies in the long run. How much money did Bell Labs directly make on the transistor? The Laser? The C programming Language? C++? Unix succeeded in large parts despite the efforts of USL. Look

        • by HuguesT (84078) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:53PM (#8629771)
          IBM's research centers do very well. They earn in excess of $1B a year in licencing fee alone. Also how much do you think the 50,000 patents portfolio is worth? Don't you think it will come into play shortly with the SCO disaster?

          Bell Labs were explicitely forbidden to market Unix or the C language or C++ for profit due to regulation. Arguably this is a contributing cause to their success, making these technologies open and publicly available to a great extent.

          Management, like politics, is most often short term focussed. Pure research drives what society will use 20-50 years down the track and it can be profitable for companies, as IBM is showing. It just requires long-term management. Maybe they should take a leaf out of some companies that have long-term views, like some wineries (look up Robert Mondavies: he wants to make his premium wine, Opus One, the best wine on the planet, period, within a time frame of 100 years. Right now it is in the top ten).
          • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:55PM (#8630164) Journal
            Management, like politics, is most often short term focussed. Pure research drives what society will use 20-50 years down the track and it can be profitable for companies, as IBM is showing. It just requires long-term management.

            Precicely.

            Basic research pays off - in time to make a bundle for investors.

            But once you've got a bunch of stuff from your OLD basic research in your portfoloio, a bunch of strip-mining Harvard types can make your balance sheet look REALLY GOOD for a few years (long enough for THEM to cash out their bubbled-up stock) by neglecting to plow any of it back into the NEXT projects. Then the guys who inherit the mess get the blame when the house of cards folds up.

            As I understand it:

            Bell Labs was a case in point of how basic research pays off. During the consolidation of the Bell System their size was pumped up partly as a regulatory scam: Once it had the mandated monopoly, the system could get their rates adjusted to make something like 6% profit on anything they spent on the telephone system - including research and development. So Bell Labs' real job was to spend as much money a possible on research on anything vuagely related to telephony. It looked like a no-lose: Spend a dollar, charge the telephoning public $1.06.

            But it "failed" totally: From the first year of this hack onward through the disvestiture and beyond, patent licensing and the like brought in more than Bell Labs spent. Awwwwww... B-)

            Xerox PARC, on the other hand, appears to have been an accounting error. (No by the same team that also mis-accounted lease revenue from their mainframe business, thought it was losing money, folded it, sued IBM for antitrust, and got laughed out of court when IBM's accounting team got hold of their books and found that it had actually been wildly profitable.)

            Seems that early Xerox machines used electromechanical logic to control the device. Lots of relays and moving parts, all expensive. One of Xerox PARC's first projects was to build a control panel using one of those new-fangled microcomputer chips. This saved them a LOT of money on each machine. And PARC kept getting credited with part of this savings. So even though corporate never managed to productize most of the stuff they came up with, they looked profitable on the books. (They DID actually sell some rights to windowing systems and mice to Apple, Though. B-) )
        • by andy1307 (656570) * on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:23PM (#8629977)
          It's ironic considering the amount of money MS made from DOS and Windows...and they didn't invent a thing.
          • by Billly Gates (198444) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:51PM (#8630144) Journal
            That is the problem stated by the author.

            Its not profitable to innovate and write good software.

            MS was very efficiant in terms of making the bare minimium because it was cheaper to develop.

            AT&T on the other hand lost money by being too innovative. Unix was great but made very little money to AT&T oddly. There were many other OS's that were multiuser and multitasking. This brought demand down.

            I think there is a conflict between R&D vs profits in todays world. CEO's are obsessed with having the maximium productivity done with the least amount of people or white collar workers ( cough India).

            Ken Thompson and Ritchie would be fired in a second if they worked on Unix or C today because they were not ordered to do so and it would not be profitable. Sigh.

            • by back_pages (600753) <back_pages&cox,net> on Sunday March 21, 2004 @10:50PM (#8630775) Journal
              Perhaps this just happens to be a point in history in this sector of the economy where R&D has gotten ahead of the profit machines. I'm currently an unemployed CS grad student who would rather be earning $20 an hour rather than getting a graduate degree, and every day I see somebody selling something that makes me say, "Damnit, I'd do that for 75% of their prices." The fact that Dell advertises "Award Winning Support" which WE all know is outsourced to India and a great deal on a "Pentium 4" which WE all know is the cheapest possible equipment they can sell --- and they're STILL MAKING A KILLING --- ought to indicate that there's enough profit available that R&D isn't so critical at the present time.

              Not that R&D isn't good - but academia specializes in that. I'm just saying that it's no surprise to me that companies heavy in R&D spending aren't doing so great. It's a tough time in technology and there's still room to capitalize on the R&D we already have.

            • by NateTech (50881) on Monday March 22, 2004 @02:11AM (#8631876) Homepage
              The vast majority of the "internal guts" of telco still runs on Unix. I'd say Unix made AT&T plenty of money.

              800 numbers and SS7 wouldn't have existed in the 80's without Unix behind them. Toll-free to the end-user is of course, not toll-free to the business answering the phone.

              Any small office using Definity Voice Mail or IVR platforms is running it on AT&T Sys V Unix, still to this day...

              What ARE you smoking? Unix made AT&T and the later divested companies a ton of money. They didn't create Unix to SELL it, they created Unix to USE it. Which is the CARDINAL difference between Unix and Windows... Unix was created to WORK, Windows was created to SELL.
        • by michael_cain (66650) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:45PM (#8630105) Journal
          The truth is, none of the world-class pure research labs (Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, TJ Watson, etc.) do a good job of helping their parent companies in the long run. How much money did Bell Labs directly make on the transistor? The Laser? The C programming Language? C++? Unix succeeded in large parts despite the efforts of USL.

          At least in the case of Bell Labs, this is hardly a fair criticism. Of the technologies listed -- transistor, laser, Unix, C -- all were developed while AT&T was a regulated monopoly. AT&T was not allowed to go into businesses other than telecommunications and their profits were restricted. Within those limitations, the transistor revolutioned telephone switching systems (stored-program control switching in the early 1960s), the laser eventually revolutionized transmission systems (fiber optics), and Unix and C had an enormous impact on operations support systems and other software applications within the Bell System. Certainly Bell Labs was successful at applying these technologies to design and build a network whose low costs and high reliability were the envy of the world at that time.

          • Doesn't this support the argument that the best form of research is publicly funded, open research?

            Perhaps, but there are a lot of problems. One of them is direction. Many of the important discoveries at Bell Labs came out of work intended to address specific problems of the company. The transistor was a result of work to develop an electrically controlled variable resistor, which would have immediate and valuable applications in circuit design. Identifying the background radiation from the Big Bang

        • They also did not maket and made very little money off Unix. It was a failure ( in business, not technical or scientific) sense.

          The problem I see is that big business want profits, not innovations. Its not worth innovating unless something is profitable. If something is profitable then you have to figure out if its worth the cost to develop and market it.

          MS Windows is a perfect pure example of this paradigm. Bill Gates wanted every feature developed only if it could be profitable. It was not profitable to
          • MS Windows is a perfect pure example of this paradigm. Bill Gates wanted every feature developed only if it could be profitable. It was not profitable to make a good OS because that would cost more money.

            You would think from this statement that UNIX had been a model of O/S design rather than a poorly documented hack job. Back in the day we used to have a unix haters list at MIT. nobody could believe that something so pathetic was winning.

            MS Windows did not have true multitasking at the start because Int

    • Read a few RFCs and cross reference with the university telephone directories at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Illinois and USC then get back to us about how the universities haven't been productive in your lifetime.
      • by miu (626917)
        Successful RFCs are written by expert practitioners and implementers of existing technology. Ipv4, PPP, TCP, DNS, SMTP, and so on involved very little in the way of basic research - they were refined and open versions of existing solutions to fairly well understood problems.

        Writing standards actually work is the job of engineers, just as basic research is the job of scientists.

        It's not that research can't and doesn't happen at universities, it's that the success and mass of the big corporate labs meant

  • by rkz (667993) * on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:02PM (#8629503) Homepage Journal
    It is very sad to see AT&T labs whittle away like this, over the years they were responsible for a number of great inventions:
    1. VNC - which is a multiplatform Remote administration tool. [att.com]
    2. Text to speach. [att.com]
    3. Multimodal data access
    4. Handwriting recognition.
    5. Wlan technologies
    Probably many more which I cant even remember.
    • by ScrewMaster (602015) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:07PM (#8629535)
      Well, let's not forget the original point-contact germanium transistor (granted it was called Bell Laboratories back then.) Pretty much set off the entire solid-state revolution in electronics, which after nearly half a century has culminated in that paragon of technological debauchery known as Slashdot. But seriously, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley would no doubt be hurt not to have their brainchild included in your list of great inventions.
    • What about Unix?

      When I think of Bell Labs, I think Unix and the transistor and yet you skipped those, oddly enough.
    • But doesn't C++ just about make it a wash?

      -jcr
    • Must not forget C, Unix, telecommunication networks, even the practical transistor was a product of the lab.

      With out old Ma-Bell, we wouldnt be sitting here discussing anything...
    • by Prof. Pi (199260) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:13PM (#8629917)

      What is interesting is that AT&T was able to afford their great labs because their government-granted monopoly gave them a guaranteed revenue stream.

      In the early 20th century, basic phone service in the U.S. was a mess, much like the current situation today with cell phone service. AT&T, the biggest player, managed to convince the government that phone service was a natural monopoly and that they were in the best position to be the ones to run that monopoly.

      This freed them from financial pressures. There was no Wall Street pressure to "increase profitability" because if they did, the regulators would say they're making too much and would mandate reductions in the rates charged to customers. On the other hand, as long as Bell Labs kept coming out with neat stuff (such as, geez, you didn't even mention the transistor?) the regulators would be happy to let the customers subsidize this because everyone would benefit in the end.

      After the breakup in 1984, phone service got way cheaper (I mean, I can call China for 2 friggin' cents a minute) but competition forced phone companies to focus on short-term costs.

    • - Transistors.
      - Information theory.
      - Graph Theory. (Especially as related to signal interconnectivity and switching.)

      I could go on for pages. (One copy of the Bell Labs Journal collected back issues took up several shelves in the University library when I was a freshman - in 1965 - and much of that related to or enabled some aspect of comptuers.
    • by fm6 (162816) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @10:11PM (#8630565) Homepage Journal
      Since this is Slashdot, the invention of Unix, C, and C++ should top the list of Bell Labs accomplishments. All OSs in widespread use owe a big debt to Unix -- even those that aren't (like Linux) simply evolutions of Unix itself. And for better or for worse. C and C++ are the most influential of all programming languages, ever.

      As for the end of Bell Labs: I'm just suprised it didn't happen 20 years ago, when AT&T stopped being a legal monopoly, and had to start acting like a business.

      We lost a lot when that happened. Not just all the cool computer science and communications tech. Lots of pure science [wired.com] too.

      And a nasty change in the way the phone business worked. In the old days, telephone equiment was made by well-paid, well-treated workers in the U.S. and Canada. And made to last. And when it finally did wear out, it was shipped back to Western Electric factories, where it was thoroughly recycled. Now phone hardware is made by underpaid peons in overseas sweatshops, designed to last a year or two, and finally tossed in a landifll.

      But, as the Libertarians love to say, There Is No Free Lunch. (Which is not strictly true [beerhistory.com], but that's another story.) The price of AT&T's huge contributions to science and expense-blind corporate citizenship was immense. Phone calls were expensive, and telephone equipment could only be leased (it was illegal to sell it) at high rates. Forget going out and buying a cheap modem -- if you wanted to do dialup, you had to lease a "data set" (a huge, clunky slow terminal-modem combination) for a horrendous rate. Not that modems weren't availabe -- starting in the 70s, they were, and cost less to buy than a month's lease on a data set. But it was illegal to hook them directly to the phone system (they might break something!). Which is how the acoustic coupler got invented.

      There are what, 100 million internet-connected computers and devices in the US? Probably a similar number of cell phones. Back in the 70s, when the Bell System was at its peak that's how many phones there were total. And only a tiny number of them were mobile or used to transmit data. I can't imagine such a geological shift in technology with AT&T continuing its total dominance of the communications marketplace. And without AT&T, no Bell Labs.

    • Better joke (Score:4, Funny)

      by Zork the Almighty (599344) on Monday March 22, 2004 @06:50AM (#8632704) Journal
      "1. Text to speach."

      Speech to text is still being worked on ;)
  • Great Tactics (Score:4, Informative)

    by RobertTaylor (444958) <roberttaylor1234@ g m a i l .com> on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:02PM (#8629507) Homepage Journal
    "We are playing to win," AT&T Labs President Hossein Eslambolchi told industry analysts in February.

    Interesting way to go about it!

    My Auction: Pan Tilt Ethernet Webcam For Sale [ebay.co.uk]
    • Re:Great Tactics (Score:2, Insightful)

      by inode_buddha (576844)
      "We are playing to win," AT&T Labs President Hossein Eslambolchi told industry analysts in February.

      If you ask a researcher, a coder, a sysadmin, a lawyer, and a businessman what the definition of "winning" is, you'll probably get five different answers, one for each. Or a doctor, or a plumber, etc. ad infinitum.

  • Bjarne already went (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plorqk (134858) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:03PM (#8629512)
    He's an endowed prof at my alma mater www.tamu.edu. Hope this improves the CS program there.

  • by alphakappa (687189) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:03PM (#8629513) Homepage
    The brain drain from Industry to Universities has been going on for some time. For the past few years, the focus of Industry has been on developing marketable technologies, as would justify the investment of venture capitalists. Also with smaller companies working on bringing products to market faster, the pressure on bigger companies to preferentially fund tangible research has been more.
    I don't know if research has suffered because of this - most basic research at American universities are funded by defense projects, and they are funded well. I'm not sure if this will produce the kind of innovative stuff that came out of Bell labs, but at least fundamental research is alive!
    • by metlin (258108) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:28PM (#8629643) Journal
      Actually it has been going on both ways - people moving from the industry to the academia and from the academia to the industry.

      Just as an example, think of Jerry Yang and David Filo [yahoo.com], Larry Page and Sergey Brin [google.com], Leonard Bosack and Sandra Lerner [cisco.com], Scott McNealy and Bill Joy - just to mention a few - all these people could have remained in the academia but chose to go to the industry instead. [sun.com]

      I'm not sure if this will produce the kind of innovative stuff that came out of Bell labs, but at least fundamental research is alive!


      That is the problem - the kind of monolithic no-holds-barred and no-questions-asked environment that Bell Labs provided is gone - that is what the article sought to mention towards the end. Sure, you can do something at the Universities, but not at the scale that it happened at Bell Labs.

      So, it really brings us back to the question - Is fundamental research really happening, or is all research now being funded solely based on what Wall Street wants?.

      It looks more and more like the days of research for the sake of in and itself are slowly coming to an end.
      • It looks more and more like the days of research for the sake of in and itself are slowly coming to an end.

        Our Civilization's Golden Age has ended. So say our analysts...
      • Sad to say, I work for a place that used to do a lot of research. Now it's just a science museum, that will safely remain anonymous, but it's named for a famous printer and founding father of the Constitution.

        The labs closed back in 1984. So whatever downward spiral we have been going through has been with us for a while. On a side note, we still have a cool tunnel between our present building and what used to be the lab, but is now an old folks home.

        I don't know enough about the reasons why the Labs cl

    • Financial analysts have developed a series of rules that determnine how well they rate investment in publicly traded stock. These rules include:

      A company should aim to have around 10% debt. Too little and it's not growing enough. Too much, and it may become bogged down in interest payments.

      A company is expected to grow at a rate of 10% year. Usually divisions are given growth targets, and if they don't achieve these targets, they may very well be sold off.

      A company should aim to have a percentage of
  • Sad Really... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Nimrangul (599578)
    While it is a shame to see one of the companies that started this whole mess breaking apart, I am a little on the apathetic side to this.

    Don't get me wrong, the loss of jobs anytime is a bad thing. But Bell Labs doesn't really hold some amazing power over the world. It's not like it's needed to help me get by and it surely hasn't given a great deal to me or improved my standard of living lately.
    • it surely hasn't given a great deal to me

      Yeah, the invention of the transistor, the laser, UNIX and C hasn't helped me a whit either.

  • Labs spokesman Michael Dickman called the downsized AT&T Labs...

    Anybody else think that Dickman and downsized are two words that shouldn't be used anywhere near each other?
  • IBM (Score:5, Informative)

    by afidel (530433) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:06PM (#8629530)
    IBM does a LOT of research, but only a small percentage of it is the type of basic research that leads to BIG jumps in technology. In other words they do process refinement and some materials science research but very little basic science research that leads to the kinds of discoveries that brought about optical lasers, the transistor, etc.
    • Re:IBM (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Frisky070802 (591229) *
      I have to disagree here. Especially in storage (look at IceCube [ibm.com] as an example), there's all sorts of good things going on, and that have gone on in the past (like magnetic disks).
      • Re:IBM (Score:3, Insightful)

        by afidel (530433)
        IceCube is EXACTLY what I was talking about, that is process refinement, putting a bunch of HDD's with embeded systems into a cluster is not new science, it's refinement of existing ideas and technologies. Giant Magneto Resistance was a basic science breakthrough that happened to have a practical application to HDD technology, but the research scientists kind of knew that when they started researching in that direction. The guys at Bell Labs used to get company grants to do research that might never have le
        • There is an additional problem with relying on government grants for basic research funding. The research results were paid for by 'everyone' and can be (and have been) taken with no further compensation to the researchers that developed some very useful things.

          Also, imagine taking a project to initial success and having the results given to another research team and you aren't a member. Now imagine your previous research being classified. You can't continue the research, talk about your successes or ev
    • Re:IBM (Score:3, Informative)

      by jabberjaw (683624)
      Ahem, although it was a bit ago, IBM researchers did develop the Scanning Tunneling Microscope.
  • damn you! (Score:4, Funny)

    by segment (695309) <`gro.xirtilop' `ta' `lis'> on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:08PM (#8629537) Homepage Journal

    I blame it on Carrot Top and his annoying 1-800-CALL-ATT commercials. Heartless bastard
  • AT&T Labs? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Fizzlewhiff (256410)
    Bell Labs was the brain power of AT&T and they went to Lucent when the company spun those business off several years ago. Did I miss AT&T picking them back up or something?
    • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Jonathan (5011)
      The part that went to Lucent is called Bell Labs [bell-labs.com] -- the part that stayed is called AT&T Labs [att.com]
    • Re:AT&T Labs? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by yukio (457122) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:19PM (#8629596)
      It's the Carly Fiorina touch.

      I'm sure she offed much of the Labs because there was no short-term sales potential for a lot of what they were doing. And as a sales dweeb, that's all she can understand.

      (See also Compaq, Alpha CPUs, HP, Itaniuam servers, the HP 3000 series etc)

      I swear that woman and Celine Dion are the evillest twins on earth.
      • With the big downsizing then. Then come back for the split in 1996 and watch it happen again. AT&T and Lucent were doomed in each of these downsizings, becuase the method they used to downsize encouraged the BEST workers to leave with incentives.

        In the 1994 downsizing, I could have stayed around, but ended up finding a new job 1 week after notification that I was at risk. I collected a total of 11 weeks pay to go somewhere else and take a raise.

        In 1996, I left Lucent to another downsizing and reali
  • by syousef (465911) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:10PM (#8629549) Journal
    ...isn't any one company or research centre closing or being made ineffective. Single institutions grow, evolve and die - they have their golden eras and their stagnant eras. When they're no longer useful or vibrant a new research centre crops up. Innovative scientific progress comes in jumps and spurts and doesn't follow a project plan.

    The real tragedy is rather that with the .COM bust there's not been any funding for new research centres. There is therefore no chance for a new centre to have its creative spurt, and nowhere for today's creative minds to go.

    I don't think we should be trying to revive dying scientific centres at all, or singling out individual ones. Instead money should be going into research and development in general based on the merits of the research. Fix the general problem and give our best thinkers the chance to do their stuff.
  • Academia (Score:5, Insightful)

    by metlin (258108) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:10PM (#8629551) Journal
    As the article points out, a lot of people are also moving into the academia, not necessarily back into the industry. Perhaps they're happier working in academic environments - atleast that way, they get to have their knowledge and findings out in the open.

    However, what the article fails to mention is that a lot of corporate researchers like this guy [washington.edu] are increasingly looking at the industry as a means of getting their research done.

    This is an issue not just with AT&T, but lots of other research labs out there. If you look at some of the top conferences on AI, Graphics and the like (SIGGRAPH for instance) - you have an alarmingly high percentage of people performing cutting edge work from Microsoft Research.

    So, it does look like MS-R is becoming a destination for a lot of good researchers out there - however, the collective prowess of other places like IBM, Intel and Xerox might just be able to bring in a balance.

    The good thing is that this brings money for research and researchers. The bad thing is that all the patents of tomorrow in a lot of the cool technologies will be 0wnzer0ed by MSFT - where would that lead OpenSource in terms of a future - if all the technology that is to come is patented?

    Its a double edged sword.
  • by TrentL (761772) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:11PM (#8629553) Homepage
    Well, this is a very common problem. I remember when I went for interviews in 2000...all the reps at Raytheon and Boeing were saying how a huge part of their workforce was going to retire, and all that knowledge was going to walk right out the door.

    Clearly, your hiring patterns have to be continuous. You can sit out economic cycles, but you can't sit out entire generations.
  • by Coryoth (254751) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:17PM (#8629575) Homepage Journal
    It's a nice idea - every company has their own pure research division to solve all those interesting problems, and the IP stays within the company... except, very few companies can afford to do this.

    Then again, look at what's come out of these sorts of pure research labs: C, UNIX, WIMP interfaces, etc., even Java, to some extent, could well be considered the output of such a process.

    These aren't technologies you can bottle and sell. The value of these sorts of things is the productivity gains they provide. That's not to say the bottle and sell it approach hasn't been tried, but in the end the real meat is often in the abstract ideas, and even with the current patent system you can't patent purely abstract concepts. That is, all these ideas have been cloned, reinvented, or otherwise copied in one form or another.

    Which brings me to my point - if you can't bottle it and sell it, if your competitors are just going to end up making a near duplicate anyway, why are you trying to fund this research lab all by yourself? No one doubts the quality of the work that can come out of these places, so why aren't there more cases of a group of various companuies banding together to fund a research group*? I'm not even talking about joining up with your direct competition - surely it wouldn't be that hard to have a group of companies that are not directly competing yet are all interested in managing to bring about a new, better, computer interface etc.

    This "go it alone" attitude is sinking a lot of potentially incredibly valuable research simply because companies don't seem to be able to cooperate.

    Jedidiah

    * Note, for instance, that OSDL is exactly this sort of thing. A research group funded by a wide range of backers all interested in pushing forward computing. And it seems to be a model that's working well!
  • Good news! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PissingInTheWind (573929) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:17PM (#8629577)
    At least the research in university isn't (as) tainted as in the industry. If we can get the top researcher to make great and open contributions to the science, it's all the better.
    • Re:Good news! (Score:3, Insightful)

      At least the research in university isn't (as) tainted as in the industry. If we can get the top researcher to make great and open contributions to the science, it's all the better.

      Don't think for a second that academics are any more or less tainted by money than an industry player. University departments live and die by grants and projects. Only 2 forces in the universe have enough money to attract University's attention: industry and government.

      Under Bush it's industry and industry's mouthpeices in go

  • by robbyjo (315601) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:17PM (#8629579) Homepage

    Well, researchers are often paying their own way except if they are one of the chairs, which they are offered some complimentary registration fee. Some of bonafide conferences actually pay their expenses if they are invited.

    Honestly, researcher communities (especially the academic ones) are disdainful to the "achievements" of "industrial research". The reject rates on industrial papers have been pretty high (usually more than 50%). This is because that the "innovations" of industrial "research" are more or less either one or some of the following: rehashing old ideas, implementing old ideas with new looks / new aspects / into new problems which often not worth mentioning, combining several old ideas in some obvious ways.

    Well, this is not to say that industrial papers are crap, but of course there are some excellent industry researchers, which are usually ex-professors which are already well known before they enter the industries. However, research is like a big gamble: either you win big or you lose big. Given the current situation of the economy, it's more likely you lose big because of "lack of genuinely new ideas" and you can never get a guarantee that your research group is actually producing the great useful results for your company. It's a whole lot better for the company to actually scour the conferences, spot the prominent person with the right ideas, and then "steal" them so that they can implement the said idea for your company. This is exactly what Microsoft has been doing in the past years.

    Since I never attended trade/business oriented conferences, I can't comment on those. Moreover, these conferences are usually way more expensive than the academia ones (thousands of $$ vs hundreds of $$).

    • Well it's pretty unusual for researcher to pay for conference registration fees out of their own salaries.

      Out of the budget for their lab, yes, but there is a big difference there.
    • by rumblin'rabbit (711865) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @09:27PM (#8630322) Journal
      Congratulations! This must break some kind of record for misinformed bullshit in slash-dot.

      First, most industrial conference fees are not in the thousands of dollars. About five hundred is more typical. These conferences do, after all, want good attendance. Second, it is rather unusual for employees to pay their own way to conferences, especially out of town ones (which most are). Third, research is by no means all or nothing. Most of it is incremental improvememnt on existing science, and gives a corresponding return on investment. Sometimes a radicial advancement is made, and this can make headlines, but that is the exception, not the rule. Fourth, you accuse companies of "stealing" ideas at conferences. Well that's the whole idea, ding dong. When one presents a paper at a conference, it's to disseminate ideas. People are supposed to "steal" them, and I take great pride when people steal mine.

      I am a software developer and researcher in geophysics. In that community at least, the top researchers are about evenly divided between industry and academic, and no, the industrial researchers are NOT mostly ex-professors.

      I have never detected any disdain for industry researchers from university researchers - indeed there are many consortiums between them. I suspect most academics are jealous of industrial researchers because they often have better financial backing and are involved in more "real world" problems. I also think industrial researchers are jealous of academics because they have more time and freedom to tackle basic, pure research. Together they make a powerful combination.

      So far as your assessment of the quality of conference papers from industry is concerned, it's just complete garbage. Free enterprize is a highly stimulating environment that attracts talented people, and the papers reflect that. The weakest papers, I'm afraid, tend to be from graduate students, although I have seen many excellent ones. Sometimes, too, overtly commercial papers get presented, although conferences fight to minimize this.

      Your rant is misinformed pretty well from top to bottom. I can't imagine why you would make such nonsense up, but it has no relation to reality.

  • Laid out of work due to a chronic sinus infection, fearless leader calls information for a recommended Dr's phone number...

    <cough...> dialing...

    AT&T operator assistance... if you need a phone number, please press or say "one" now...

    "One"

    Thank You. What City?

    <Hoarsley...> "Atlanta"

    Thank You. What State?

    "Georgia"

    Thank You. Please hold for the number..

    <Cough...>

    Thank You. Goodbye!

    Oh yeah... they're really making progress in natural language processing and speech recogni

  • This is plain horrible. How will we compete in the international marketplace in the decades to come ?

    It's obvious that manufactoring is not the way. Labour is so much cheaper in the developing world. We have to be ahead of the curve and do the development and research to stay in the front.

    I see a terrible future ahead where research and production take place outside the western world. We will be left as consumers and hairdressers.

  • IBM Research (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ray Radlein (711289) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:34PM (#8629674) Homepage
    I remember, back in 1987 or so, getting a good look at a computer industry study that showed gross revenues, margins, and so forth for pretty mich all of the companies in what one would consider "the computer industry" of the time. It also showed how much they spent on R&D.

    Sperry spent a decent amount; so did Cray, and Hewlett Packard, and AT&T, and NCR, and so forth.

    IBM spent more on R&D than the rest of them put together.

    In fact, IBM spent more on R&D than the gross revenues of the second-largest company. Not the profits, mind you -- the gross revenues.

    That was the single most gobsmacking business statistic that I heard until the one a couple of years ago about how Microsoft could purchase the airline industry out of its cash reserves -- twice .
    • Microsoft could purchase the airline industry out of its cash reserves -- twice .
      dont give them any ideas, the airlines suck enough as it is...
    • Buying out the airline industry isn't all that impressive a feat. Right now they are all trying to starve each other out of business. The stupid feds keep bailing them out, and the battle rages on like a B-Movie.

      At least with the railroads, you could buy them up for all of the right-of-ways that they own. Airlines don't own anything. The terminals are rented from the airports. In some cases the planes are leased from other companies. For a "vital industry" nobody seems to want to sink a whole lot of capit

  • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:35PM (#8629679)
    AT&T did contribute a lot to research, but perhaps we're beyond the stage where organisations like AT&T can provide meaningful reasearch.

    Like aerospace and military, the telecoms industry did push early days computers. However it has been the industrial sector and since then the consumer sector which has driven the smaller, faster and cheaper computing.

    For example, one might argue that modems were a spin off from Rockwell aerospace. However, that would have left us with 300 baud modems the size of a PC. It took the comsumer age to drive us to 56k Compact Flash format modems.

    We have a lot to thank the pioneers for, but after a while they get beyond their usefulness/effectiveness.

  • The president of AT&T Labs insists the organization is helping AT&T's bottom line. ...........He promised more advances in high-speed data over wireless networks and power lines, and technology to aggregate voice and e-mail messages.

    Let's see how they will notch out my KW on 40 meters with their BPL technology when they don't have any *GOOD* engineers left.
  • Physics vs. Software (Score:5, Interesting)

    by G4from128k (686170) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:40PM (#8629711)
    I was at conference at Bell Labs/Lucent not too long ago and I think part of what is happening is a natural shift in what matters in corporate research. I got the sense that Bell Labs was shifting slightly from its physics/hardware roots to math/algorithms/software future. They still do physics, but they also do proportionally more R&D in the idea/software space. (Disclaimer: I didn't see any budget figures or top secret stuff, so who knows what they really goes on in Murray Hill)

    I'm not saying that we should stop R&D on hardware, solid state physics and materials, only that new software and software-related tools would help everyone get the most out of the current portfolio of hardware technologies. Given that we just discussed "Why Programming Still Stinks" [slashdot.org] and have not discussed "Why Hardware Still Stinks," I would suggest that the bigger research opportunites are in software.

    I also suspect that software is more commercialization-friendly. If you look at research advances in hardware/materials it takes 20 years before it makes it out of the lab. By the time a fundamentally new invention is in mass-production its is off-patent. I know BellLabs invented the transistor and the laser, but I wonder what fraction of semiconductor and laser industry's profits actually went to BellLabs/AT&T. In contrast, software can be more self contained and follow a much faster adoption curve.

    In summary, I would say that scientists and engineers already have a reasonably good handle on atoms and that the real R&D opportunities are in getting better with bits.
    • One of the wonderful things about the old Bell Labs was that it was really a quasi-public research organization where there wasn't the pressure to focus on incremental development or play Intellectual Property games. The transistor was licenced on nominal terms (i.e., they didn't put out submarine patents and lie in wait for victims to sue). Another example, the Bell Systems Technical Journal, was a first rate research publication. Papers in this journal contributed immensely to the understanding of areas s
  • by Barleymashers (643146) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @07:44PM (#8629734)
    As a former labs person, one who was included in last years outsourcing, it is not a surprise to see this happen. For right or wrong the new management has chosen this path and they are succeeding in an alarming rate. What they are succeeding at I have no idea beside the destruction of the Labs and the company as a whole. Am I a bitter ex-employee? sure... but that doesn't change the fact that that it is happening.

    The president of the labs is to credit or blame as you see fit. He has a strategy and he is going about it quickly. Is it a good strategy? Time will tell, but it is not one I believe in, nor do I believe in their president, even when I was a loyal employee. He is downsizing research and development and trying to buy off the shelf products for a company that really has no peer in size. Let's face it, the reason why AT&T had to develop all of their own stuff internally was because there was no one on the outside developing towards that market and could achieve the quality that was desired. They have special needs that outside vendors, for the most part, can't fill, but they try and stick the square peg into the round hole.
  • symptom (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:03PM (#8629847)
    This is just the tip of the iceberg: for the past hundred years or more, the rest of the industrialized world looked to the United States for advanced research, innovative ideas and new technologies, if not new products. Now we are being surpassed on nearly every level, and we have no-one to blame but ourselves. Time for us to get the lead out, get back to work, and start competing again. I'm sick and tired of hearing about how we can't compete with near-slave labor, how India has raised so many super-smart engineers and scientists that we don't have any hope ... that's baloney. We are the ones that proved to the rest of the world that there is a better way, that abject poverty need not be the lot of the average human being. I simply don't believe that after a mere two hundred-odd years America has peaked: we can get back on track if we accept a few facts.

    The Japanese have always looked at business as a kind of battleground. China and India are taking much the same tack with us. Now that's fine: there's nothing wrong with stiff competition, in and of itself. If you understand that and work hard to improve your own operations, everyone wins.

    The problem is we, as a nation, haven't fully realized that we're smack in the middle of an economic war. Certainly our corporate leaders have not: they are, in fact, actively giving aid and comfort to the enemy! Were they in the military, they would be summarily executed for profiteering. These people, as well as many members of the government, need to be made aware of some things. For example, I don't believe that good business practices should involve the total destruction of one's own workforce (and just incidentally, one's best customers) nor should it involve massive transfers of technology and proprietary information to foreign "partners". Partners who, I might add, are more than likely to simply take that information while giving nothing in return. Protectionism (in the sense of the government dropping huge tariffs on foreign suppliers) is not a real answer, but on the other hand simply giving away everything you have of value, everything you have spent years and billions of dollars to develop, is just plain stupid. Yet that is precisely what is going on.

    I'm sure that most of us know of companies that took their manufacturing and/or engineering operations to China, say, and then found themselves to be nothing but hollowed-out marketing organizations totally dependent upon foreign suppliers. We allow this to happen, because they don't perceive "good business" in the same way the Western world does, and we don't understand that. At all. That doesn't mean we can't do business with China to the benefit of all, but we simply have to learn how to do it.

    I'm reminded of Yamamoto's words after the attack on Pearl Harbor: "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant." Well, I think it is past time that America woke up from it's decades long slumber and started to compete again. It can be done: we just have to convince each other of that fact, be willing to accept significant changes in the way we do business, and convince Congress to let us do it.
    • for the past hundred years or more, the rest of the industrialized world looked to the United States for advanced research, innovative ideas and new technologies, if not new products

      Get real - it has been a little over 50 years. Look where all the nobel laureates from the first half of the 20th century are coming from.
      • Get real. Look where the rest of the world was a hundred years ago. And yes, there's no doubt that a lot of Nobel Laureates came from foreign countries (huge surprise, so did all of us, since we started out as a Colony) but in order to have the freedom to promulgate their ideas and actually do something with them without fear of reprisal or suppression, or for that matter to find a place with the will and the resources to help them develop those ideas, they generally ended up here. Put that in your hat.
    • Re:symptom (Score:3, Insightful)

      In truth, I feel little sympathy for the view that nations should try to be at war with each other, whether economically or otherwise.

      Political leaders may be able to succeed in creating rifts between peoples, but I think scientists should try to work to improve the lot of human beings as a whole, not allow themselves to be pawns in global politics.

    • Okay, you want to "win"? You must be the cheapest provider of a product or service. That doesn't mean you can't make big money - you can, provided you can stay ahead of stiff competition.

      Sure maybe one day we will all be a nation of creative geniuses and biotech gurus, but that will take a generation. Sorry but work-retraining programs are basically a way to teach people how to drive a forklift.

  • by ljavelin (41345) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:07PM (#8629878)
    This situation reminds me of the mid-nineties, where technology companies were laying off in droves. The only ones that stayed were the researchers that had no choice due to talent or life situation.

    In my former company, their research arm all but died. We once did very very cool things. Now the company is just a shell trying to make the best of it's past glories.

    Just you wait until the foreign competition catches up. Remember the U.S.'s leadership in consumer electronics? Where did THAT go?
    • Remember the U.S.'s leadership in consumer electronics? Where did THAT go?

      In my case to Singapore. Manufacturing moved to the Phillapines. Engineering moved to Singapore. My job went with it back in 1998.

      Hey, I did find a better job though.

  • Greed (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Detritus (11846) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:13PM (#8629918) Homepage
    AT&T may have been "mugged by Wall Street", but in other cases, like General Electric, the reason is pure and simple greed. Corporate leaders like Jack "Neutron Jack" Welch, who were so fixated on the stock price and the bottom line, that they gutted anything that didn't produce immediate results.
  • by thogard (43403) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:16PM (#8629936) Homepage
    When AT&T was "The Phone Company", it funded bell labs with an internal "tax". That means that every department in the company would take 10% off the top of what they brought in and send it to bell labs. It was very well funded and the R&D consistently paid off.

    Now the stock market is a major player in moving money in and out of compaines and they don't like research. It even appears that most of the major funds consider it a bad gamble in most cases. The side effects of the short sighted profit is that the US economy is loosing 1.3 billion dollars a day and the pyramid scheme that used to prop up some of the economy is falling apart.

    Congress needs to start intorducing tax cuts for real R&D.
  • by DrSkwid (118965) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:34PM (#8630044) Homepage Journal

    The lay offs at bell-labs have had a massive negative imapact on plan9.

    Rob Pike [bell-labs.com] has gone to google for instance

    Stories of them taking out 75% of the light bulbs [theregister.co.uk] in the labs to save money.

    We're down to three devs from the labs working on plan9, mostly in their own time.

    So sad, Lucent have bungled it.

  • current trends (Score:3, Insightful)

    by timmarhy (659436) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @08:48PM (#8630121)
    Wall street lap dog companies are going to self implode in the next 10 - 20 years mark my words. to these chumps who are only intrested in make a quick buck by raising share prices for a day via inreased venue announcments only see R&D as a drain on the company caused by some men in white coats playing games. what these pony tail wearing yuppies don't understand is that it takes years and years of R&D to get new technology to market. you'd think they would understand R&D is an investment, just like an investment there is a risk you'll lose money but in general you'll stand to make a tidy return over time.
  • Bell Labs - Columbus (Score:4, Informative)

    by rlp (11898) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @09:12PM (#8630250)
    I worked at Bell Labs in Columbus, OH for ten years when I first got out of school. Great place, interesting work, and lots of very smart people. Most of the folks I knew there are gone. When AT&T split into AT&T / Lucent, the Columbus Labs went with Lucent. The management of Lucent then proceeded to run the company into the ground. The dotcom bust and telecom implosion (i.e. Worldcom) didn't help either.

    Today the Lucent branch of Bell Labs is a shadow of it's former greatness. It's ranks have been decimated, and most of what's left is being shipped overseas. A rather sad and undeserving epitaph for what was once one of America's premier R&D institutions.

    P.S. For any BTL alumni out there - I worked in area 59 - on speech recognition in Conversant, and then on DCS (the Display Construnction Set) - a UIMS for network management.
  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @10:22PM (#8630644) Homepage
    It's not just Bell Labs. Xerox PARC was spun off as a private company, and isn't doing well. RCA did the same thing with RCA Labs years ago, forming Sarnoff Labs, noted primarily for developing the losing technology for HDTV. When IBM exited the disk drive business, IBM Almaden Labs lost much of its reason for existence, and the people I know there aren't happy. DEC's R&D operation disappeared after the Compaq acquisition.

    Outside of drugs/biotech and automotive, it's hard to think of any major US corporate research labs not in decline.

  • by mrogers (85392) on Sunday March 21, 2004 @10:40PM (#8630741)
    Non-registration ZIP and age demographic collection.

    I think they'll be surprised how many Slashdot readers live in zip code 10101 and are 101 years old.

  • by ScottForbes (528679) on Monday March 22, 2004 @12:29AM (#8631372) Homepage
    For those trying to understand the differences between "AT&T" and "Bell Labs," a brief history:
    1875
    Alexander Graham Bell is granted a patent on the telephone, and forms a company called Bell Telephone. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, this company eventually becomes known as AT&T.
    1894
    Bell's patents expire and telephony enters the public domain. Six thousand incompatible telephone companies go into business between 1894 and 1904; AT&T begins buying them and knitting a nationwide network.
    1908
    AT&T acquires controlling interest in Western Union, the telegraph company.
    1913
    First anti-trust action against AT&T; Western Union divested. Monopoly regulation of AT&T gradually tightens over the years.
    1925
    Bell Labs founded. Over the next 50 years, Bell Labs invents UNIX, C, the long-playing record, the speech synthesizer, transistor, cell phone, laser, electret microphone, light-emitting diode, stereogram, videophone, charge-coupled devices, and discovers information theory, finite-state automation, and (accidentally) radio astronomy.
    1956
    AT&T signs a consent decree restricting the company's activities, and agrees not to expand its business beyond the national telephone system and government work. This means that it can't make money off C, UNIX, laser beams or anything else it invented after 1956, except for sales within the telephony industry itself.
    1982
    AT&T agrees to exit the local phone business in order to escape antitrust regulation and lawsuits, spining off seven Baby Bells: NYNEX, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, Ameritech, US West, Pacific Telesys, and Southwestern Bell. The Baby Bells go through several mating dances, with various wireline and wireless parts merging into Verizon, SBC, Cingular, Qwest and other companies.
    1991
    AT&T, having no luck in the computer business it's now free to enter, acquires NCR in a hostile takeover. NCR was right to be hostile: The combined company still misses the boat, having missed its window of opportunity.
    1994
    AT&T acquires McCaw Cellular ("Cellular One") and rebrands it as AT&T Wireless. This drives a wedge between AT&T and many customers who purchase wireless equipment from AT&T, since the company is now both supplier and competitor.
    1995-7
    AT&T splits into three separate entities: AT&T, the long distance company; Lucent Technologies, the manufacturing arm; and NCR, the burned-out shell of a once-great company. Lucent gets Bell Labs and most of the blue-sky physics research; AT&T keeps a subset that does speech and software research, and calls it AT&T Labs.
    2000
    The entire telecommunications industry goes over a cliff. Lucent and AT&T both frantically cut costs, spining off businesses and slashing R&D budgets to raise capital and stay alive. This leads to the spinoff of Avaya (Lucent's consumer and business products) and Agere (microelectronics), and the sale of AT&T's broadband assets to Comcast and its wireless assets to Cingular.

    Anyhow, the point of all this is that (a) Lucent got the lion's share of Bell Labs in the '96 spinoff, including the name; and (b) the "real" Bell Labs has been downsized just as badly as its former sibling at AT&T, although Lucent is slightly ahead of the business curve and is hopefully through the worst of the cost-cutting. (Lucent was also first in line when it was time to go over the cliff, of course, so being ahead of the curve doesn't always work to your advantage.)

    (The obligatory disclaimer: I work for Lucent, but I'm not even vaguely attempting to speak on their behalf. I'm sure AT&T veterans would tell the tale differently, emphasizing the heroic role of AT&T Labs in the liberation of Stalingrad or some such, but this is what passes for corporate history in my weak and enfeebled mind.)

"In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." -- Thomas Jefferson

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