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On April 28 and 29, 2016, Nokia Bell Labs hosted a unique two-day event celebrating the life and work of former employee Claude E. Shannon, who is considered the father of information theory. On April 30, the 100th anniversary of his birth, Google honored him by changing the masthead banner on its iconic landing page. Shannon is perhaps best known for determining the fundamental maximum transmission capacity that can be achieved on a transmission channel, now known as the Shannon Limit. The impact of Shannon’s work goes beyond this limit, though. His concepts affected many different areas of research in communications and computing over the past seven decades.

Shannon is a giant among giants

Society likes to celebrate innovators. Inventors such as Bell, Edison, and Marconi are held in high esteem. Who doesn’t recognize Albert Einstein’s formula of E=MC2 from his Special Theory of Relativity? Yet if you mention Claude Shannon, the average person has nary a clue who the man was, or the fact that the technology we use every day is largely built on his theories.

Shannon started early. In his thesis document while a 21-year-old master’s degree student at MIT in 1937, Shannon demonstrated that electrical applications of Boolean algebra to the on/off positon of switching relays could be used as the basis for building a logic machine. In other words, Shannon developed digital logic, which underlies the design of computers as we know them. Shannon is also responsible for the development of source coding, the idea of representing an analog waveform using 0s and 1s – simply put, he invented the “bit.”

Shannon’s accomplishments touch many areas of ICT, including data communications, storage, data coding, artificial intelligence (AI), neural networks, integrated circuits (ICs), computers, cryptography/encryption, compression, and even areas beyond communications such as genomics, economics, and finance. Researchers have built entire careers following up on his innovations, and his theories are largely responsible for driving telecom and computing research over the past 70 years. Chances are if what you touch is digital, it was shaped in some way by Shannon’s work.

Resurgence of Bell Labs

Shannon’s accomplishments and the impact of his research on the information society is well documented. What is sometimes forgotten is that Shannon was part of Bell Labs, a large, storied research institution that provided a collaborative environment that enabled him to prosper.

Bell Labs has a unique history of innovation dating back 91 years, when it was founded as the research arm for AT&T (formerly American Telephone and Telegraph). In addition to the development of information theory discussed above, the organization also fostered the creation of radio astronomy, the first transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD, a major piece of digital imaging technology), the Unix operating system, and the C and C++ programming languages. The organization’s staff boasts eight Nobel Prize in Physics awards and countless other awards and recognitions.

After the Bell system breakup in 1984, Bell Labs became part of Lucent Technologies and has since gone through several mergers and acquisitions, most recently by Nokia. Through this tumultuous time in the telecommunications industry, Bell Labs has managed to maintain its relevance as one of the world’s most powerful industrial labs. While force reduction is a natural consequence of most mergers and acquisitions, Bells Labs has been strengthened through the latest merger of Nokia with Alcatel-Lucent. The number of scientists that now make up Bell Labs, including the staff of Nokia’s FutureWorks organization, restore research-level jobs past where they were in the company’s heyday prior to the 1984 breakup.

Why is Shannon’s work so important to Bell Labs?

Other than the fact that Shannon was one of Bell Labs’ most famous scientists and his theories touch nearly every discipline of study at the organization – not much else.

The fact is we are entering a period in time when the network is becoming the most critical piece of the digital economy. The central office is transforming into a data center as cloud-based centralized functions are distributed to the edge of the network. The principles developed by Shannon such as source coding, security/encryption, computer learning, and the physical limits on transmission will play a huge role in this transformation, which will play out over the next 10 years. Scientists at Bell Labs and other research facilities around the globe are acutely aware of the relevance of Shannon’s work. Bell Labs, for example, is focused on the technology of communications and the emerging technologies that will impact the market. Every bit of what they do can somehow be related to Shannon’s theories.

As an analyst covering optical networks, I was aware of the Shannon Limit, which is the theoretical maximum amount of bandwidth that can be transmitted on a fiber link. What I did not know until attending the Bell Labs celebration was the extent of Shannon’s work and how it has impacted development in so many areas related to network and communications technology. We should all take a minute to remember to thank Mr. Shannon for his legacy.


Further reading

OFC 2016: Optical Innovation Abounds, TE0006-001220 (April 2016)

2016 Trends to Watch: Optical Networks, TE0006-001165 (December 2015)


Ron Kline, Principal Analyst, Service Provider Infrastructure

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