Technological revolution in the air as we connect with a networked future

Bell Labs president heralds the fifth revolution of the modern era

"Maybe we're on the verge of a technological revolution," says Marcus Weldon, the 13th president of Bell Labs and corporate chief technology officer at parent company Alcatel Lucent.

The “maybe” is important, because it is a carefully considered opinion with the weight of Bell Labs’ history of scientific and technological innovation behind it, including the development of the transistor, the Unix operating system and the C++ programming language.

This revolution is the subject matter of The Future X Network, the first book to come out of Bell Labs and one with an expansive list of topics ranging from the future of security to the future of the internet of things (IoT), but underpinned by the future of the network we already depend on to keep us connected.

There have been only five revolutions in the modern era, says Weldon. The first, in 1600, was financial and agricultural. This was followed by two industrial revolutions, the scientific- technical one in the 1940s and, finally, the one we have just left.

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For those who are just getting comfortable with the information-communication revolution that began in 1985, Bell Labs has some news: it’s over, big changes are coming and we’re already inside what could be described as the connected-augmented revolution.

It's already commonplace to instantly augment our knowledge with Google at a tap or by asking Siri; we've forgotten what it's like to wait for entertainment; and IoT is making driverless cars, drones, and smart homes possible.

“We think it meets the criteria of a technological revolution and others are saying this too but we’re only 1 per cent on the way,” Weldon adds, explaining that as more things become connected the network has to accommodate this.

As we phase out physical interactions with everyday objects for digital interactions, our wearable devices, cars, central-heating systems, fridges, front doors and even floors will all have sensors that connect them to the cloud.

“The network cannot possibly connect all those devices without going through a transformation,” says Weldon, adding that while we’re seeing hints of what this will mean, current network technologies could not cope with future peak demand.

The Future X Network is essentially a road map for the transformation ahead, X being both the unknown variable that is the future and the multiples of 10 by which devices, the cloud and network infrastructure will evolve over a 10-year period, explains Weldon.

Bell Labs researchers including Sanjay Patel, Alessandra Sala, Chris White and Thierry Klein talked about kinds of research being carried out that will help develop this network of the future.

The “network brain” is a network that can sense, compute and react intelligently to variable traffic, while “zero-power networking” is being developed to cope with the network and data-centre energy consumption required to support the sheer number of devices and objects that will be connected in the next decade. It’s what Klein refers to as “our moonshot to save the planet”.

As Hamlet didn’t say, the network’s the thing.