Bell Labs Looks at Claude Shannon’s Legacy and the Future of Information Age

Tech luminaries celebrate one of the greatest electrical engineering heroes of all time

5 min read
Bell Labs Looks at Claude Shannon’s Legacy and the Future of Information Age
Photo: Erico Guizzo/IEEE Spectrum

As the doors of Hamming Hall swung open, a parade of tech-world notables headed inside. Internet pioneers and Silicon Valley executives crammed into the front rows, along with 16 IEEE Fellows, of which four were also IEEE Medal of Honor recipients. A Nobel laureate walked in and squeezed himself into a seat between them.

Those brilliant minds gathered at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., last Thursday to celebrate a man who also stood out for his extraordinary genius: Claude Shannon, the mathematician and electrical engineer who founded the field of information theory and whose groundbreaking ideas on computing, cryptography, and communications have had a lasting impact on the world of technology. Shannon, who worked at Bell Labs from 1941 until 1956, when he joined the MIT faculty, died in 2001 at age 84. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.

img Bell Labs, IEEE, and the IEEE Information Theory Society unveiled the monument above at the Shannon Centennial Conference in Murray Hill, N.J. The plaque reads: “The mathematical principles of Information Theory, laid down by Claude Elwood Shannon during the period 1939-1967, set in motion a revolution in communication systems engineering. They quantified the concept of information, established fundamental limits for the representation and reliable transmission of information, and revealed the architecture of systems for approaching them. Today, Information Theory, continues to provide the foundation for advances in information collection, storage, distribution, and processing.”

Bell Labs, now part of Nokia, organized the Claude Shannon Centennial Conference to reflect on the immense legacy of one of its most legendary alumni and look at the future of the information age he helped launch. Invited speakers discussed how Shannon’s work transformed their research fields and their own careers, and what lessons his life offers to today’s innovators.

“He was the engineer-mathematician-theoretician-intuitive-genius,” said Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at UCLA who was a PhD student at MIT under Shannon. “He opened up vast new domains of science and engineering,” Kleinrock, an Internet pioneer who helped develop packet switching, said. “He set the standards that others have yet to achieve.”

Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, who took Shannon’s graduate seminar at MIT, said he could only imagine what his professor, an inveterate tinkerer and prankster, would have done with today’s processors and sensors. Shannon would have built “some really amazing toys, robots, drones,” he told the audience. “He’d just have a great time with all of these things.”

Bell Labs showed a video of Shannon demonstrating one of his many wondrous contraptions, Theseus, a device in which a mouse was able to find its way out of a maze all on its own:

Sergio Verdú, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, gave a colorful talk on Shannon’s life, presenting the steps that seem to have led him to information theory. “This is really one of the few cases in science where a whole discipline comes out of the blue,” he said, referring to the seminal paper Shannon published in 1948, titled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” [Read it on IEEE Xplore: Parts I and II; Part III.]

img Sergio Verdú of Princeton shows a Bell Labs telephone directory that listed some of Shannon’s coworkers in 1947. It includes some major figures in electrical engineering and mathematics of the 20th century: Hendrik Bode, Ralph B. Blackman, Richard Hamming, Brockway McMillan, and John Tukey. Also on the list was Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Moore, whom Shannon would marry in 1949.

Verdú described the paper as having “elegant mathematics” that proved to be “extremely practical,” even though it took more than two decades until digital systems evolved to the point where engineers could apply Shannon’s ideas to build reliable, error-free communication systems.

Also in attendance were MIT’s David Forney, this year’s recipient of the IEEE Medal of Honor; Elwyn Berlekamp, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley who worked with Shannon at MIT; Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and now a professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin; and Robert W. Wilson, who shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics.

STUMBLING AROUND IN THE DARK

The conference also aimed to look at the future of innovation in the digital age. Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and chief technology officer of Nokia, predicted “a revolution in networking” as today’s centralized communication systems reach their limits and give way to a more distributed infrastructure. “We’re going to build a brand new network over the next 10 years.”

He added that if it weren’t for Shannon’s insights on the capacity of communication channels, “we would be stumbling around in the dark.” (At one point he did make the auditorium go dark by “turning off” Bell Labs’ innovations. Don’t worry, he turned them back on!)

img Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and Nokia CTO, said that without Shannon’s insights on communications, “we would be stumbling around in the dark.”

Another speaker, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and now executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, offered a wide-ranging view of innovation. As a summer student at Bell Labs in the 1970s, Schmidt was part of the famed group that developed Unix and C. He said that supporting “curiosity-driven research,” with “scientists largely left alone to pursue hunches,” is a vital part of a successful innovation ecosystem.

Other components include “brutal academic competition” and “encouragement of entrepreneurship with light or no regulation.” He argued that the combination of these elements allowed technologies like the transistor, search engines, and autonomous vehicles to evolve into “systemic platforms” that can have a big societal impact.

“Shannon was interested in (solving) intellectual puzzles and he did this brightly by having multiple things he was interested in the back of his brain all the time. And then when he got up in the morning he’d have some idea to kind of start to pursue one of those problems. And whichever one came up first, he would work on that.”

Today’s Bell Labs, however, is very different than the Bell Labs where  information theory was invented. In 2007, it became part of Alcatel-Lucent and went through a major reorganization. Early this year, after Nokia acquired Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs found itself, yet again, adjusting to a new owner.

Robert G. Gallager, a professor emeritus at MIT who worked with Shannon in the 1960s, called on Nokia to support the “Shannon-style research” that is now increasingly hard to find in industrial labs and universities. “Managers need to meet deadlines, they need to do all these other things,” he said. “But if they want to have really good people, to start to do things a little like what Shannon did, they need to give people time to think.”

Gallager added that Shannon “was interested in intellectual puzzles,” and not in particular businesses or companies. “Shannon did this brightly by having multiple things he was interested in the back of his brain all the time. And then when he got up in the morning he’d have some idea to kind of start to pursue one of those problems. And whichever one came up first, he would work on that.”

Or as Shannon himself once put it, “I think, indeed, that most scientists are oriented that way, that they are working because they like the game.”

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