CTO of Nokia: ‘All tech revolutions are underpinned by networks’

30 Jun 2017

Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and corporate CTO of Nokia. Image: Nokia Bell Labs

This week in our 5-minute CIO series, Nokia’s Marcus Weldon outlines how technology can better serve the needs of the world.

As president of Bell Labs and corporate chief technology officer (CTO) of Nokia, Marcus Weldon coordinates the technical strategy across the company and drives technological and architectural innovations into the portfolio.

Weldon will be speaking at Inspirefest next week about transformational technologies.

‘The definition of a technology revolution is a new technology that gets networked and then changes society or economies. It is the networked part that is always critical’

A luminary in the industry, he combines his vision with the power of Bell Labs to create a unique innovation engine, with the overall goal to ‘invent the future’ of the networking and communications industry. He was selected as one of the Global Telecoms Business Power100 most influential people in ICT in 2014, and one of its top CTOs to watch in 2015.

Nokia Bell Labs, which is headquartered at Murray Hill in New Jersey, owes its heritage to Alexander Graham Bell. The location is home to inventions ranging from radio astronomy, transistor, laser and information theory, to the UNIX operating system, the C and C++ programming languages, and lots more.

In 2015, Nokia agreed to buy Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs, in a deal worth $16.6bn.

Last year, Bell Labs, along with Deutsche Telekom and the Technical University of Munich, achieved speeds of 1Tbps (terabit per second) by improving transmission capacity and spectral efficiency in a fibre optic network, using a new modulation technique.

Bell Labs has, for all of its history, been at the forefront of innovation. What has changed in the mission since the integration with Nokia?

I think the two companies had different personalities coming into it, but it is a complement that has been interesting.

There is a rich history of research in Nokia called Nokia Research Centre that, at one time, had 1,300 researchers with a track record in handset technologies, and that’s where the old Nokia phones had come from, and even smartphones. Smartphones were a famous miss by Nokia 10 years ago. The fact is, the researchers saw that coming but perhaps the adoption by the product teams was not as fast, and so they missed that window.

There was a rich heritage of that research but, because of the failure to move first on smartphones, that research had been curtailed or scaled back radically, and, in fact, much of it had gone.

But a core team of people remained, in two places. One was in the division called Tech, which owns our digital media, digital healthcare and patent business, with 100 or so researchers working on device technologies for healthcare and digital media. And there were a few hundred researchers in a corporate research facility called T&I (Tech and Innovation), and those were still sustained by Nokia, and that was a little like Bell Labs. We merged that team with Bell Labs and we now have a larger Bell Labs with 1,000 researchers, whereas before, we were 700.

The other interesting part is, we have more of a handset-mentality, or device mentality, which means we can complete the loop. Before, any story I told you might have been about cloud and core and access networks, and I might have talked about the digital home. But we never would have talked about mobile devices or sensor technologies and now, we can complete that end-to-end a bit more.

And that is a good thing because, in the end, we are living in an era where the device is at the forefront and the network is somewhat in the background. By having both ends, we get to have more of an enterprise, industrial and consumer-facing direct device business as well as a networks business, which gives us a dual personality.

And that is a very valuable thing because we get to see the problem from both ends.

This week is the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone going on sale and today, we are entering a new world of VR, AR, IoT and more. What will Nokia Bell Labs’ role be in that future?

Whatever the next generation of devices is, beyond smartphones, we have an interest in that.

One interest we have is, we brand license to HMD Global and they manufacture the Nokia 3310, and they will evolve to support a line of smartphones as well. That’s the way we’ve said we will address the conventional consumer communications device market.

We have ambitions in digital healthcare with the Withings portfolio, which will be rebranded as Nokia pretty soon. Withings will continue to be a set of devices and technologies in connected health.

We are interested in sensing mobile functions that you either wear or might be stationary, but may connect to a mobile network. Does it include head-mounted displays like VR? Not at the moment, but it does include the camera that produces those images.

Right now, the head-mounted display market is so all over the place – you have billion-dollar-funded start-ups like Magic Leap, you have Oculus, you have Google with their Pixel stuff – and so I think we are not yet decided on the head-mounted display part.

But we are very much into an array of healthcare and infrastructure-related sensor technologies that we will either make ourselves or we will partner, or integrate into a solution.

We do have this ambition to be a leader in certain industrial segments, and we consider healthcare an industrial segment; just like we do infrastructure, transportation, oil and gas, and public sector, to the extent that we are interested in making novel devices for these segments.

Technology has the ability to change the world, from free online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia, 5bn people with mobile services, banking services in Africa and unlimited ways to connect. And yet, Silicon Valley appears cut off, culturally broken and focused primarily on wealth creation. How do we unite the tech world to continue improving humanity?

I am often asked about Silicon Valley versus the rest of the world, whether I am in Ireland, New Jersey or Tel Aviv.

I actually think Silicon Valley focuses on business-model disruption and uses technology where it needs to, in order to solve business-model problems.

That is different from Tel Aviv, New Jersey or Ireland, where we tend to focus on human-need problems, which means solving real human-need problems first and the business model comes after the fact. That remains true. You could argue that the cultural issues that Silicon Valley is having might suggest human needs are not the prime driver right now.

At Nokia Bell Labs, our new tagline is ‘Connecting the World with Technology’ and it has this humanistic aspect to it, so we try to think about the future of human needs. Humans can be in an industrial, enterprise or consumer context, and we have to invent the technologies that are needed to realise that new value.

I think that leads us into healthcare because there is clearly a human need there. There is a massive amount of inefficiency and waste and lack of quality care for the 5-6bn people on the planet outside of the US and western Europe. You could say that the quality is there but the cost is too high.

It is the same with infrastructure – pollution, traffic, road deaths, loss of water – all of those needs can be addressed if we look at technology and networks that would enable optimised solutions.

In the end, all technology revolutions are underpinned by networks. The definition of a technology revolution is a new technology that gets networked and then changes society or economies. It is the networked part that is always critical.

I think this time around – if you consider the first 10 years of technologies like the iPhone as the first round – networks are going to play an even more pivotal role, because you are going to need quality of service, high bandwidth, very little latency; attributes that we haven’t really exploited with the iPhone the first time around.

But really, right now, if we are making this a human enhancement and augmentation world, you are going to need much higher performance, and that’s what excites us so much about the future.

Would you agree that it is still a physics challenge?

Yes, but it’s a fun physics challenge, especially when you want to send data at the speed of light – the only answer to a latency problem is to go close to that.

When I look at simple speed of light calculations, say, for example, if I have one millisecond of latency, which I need for many control applications, the challenge is immense and transformative.

AR, VR, and any robotic or automated vehicle, will need a millisecond of latency. If we want a millisecond of latency on all of these futuristic applications, the network has to be rebuilt as a hyper-local network to support low latency.

And that is a super interesting evolution because it changes everything. Everything becomes local, including the applications, the analytics, the security, the expert; whether it is AI or human.

All that has to become local and that is an exciting evolution. I think 5G is the thing that is going to lead that because it is the lowest latency spec and the highest bandwidth spec that I need to provide those services as well.

By limiting the number of women in technology, we are limiting ourselves to potentially half of the world’s future technology solutions. How has Nokia Bell Labs gone about changing the ratio?

One of the problems we had traditionally was the number of PhDs – 85pc of our workers are PhDs – entering the pool in a more diverse way. When I say diverse, I mean gender, because we have always been culturally diverse, recruiting from all over the world.

It’s true that in the pool of talent that has been recruited all over the world, the number of women represented was low, but there was a time where we really got close to solving the problem.

We had a programme 20 years ago that funded and recruited women all the way through graduate school and it was massively successful, and resulted in some very successful women coming through Bell Labs, who are today deans and provosts in some of the world’s top universities.

However, in the many telecoms industry upheavals, when budgets were under pressure, that programme was lost and, as a result, we lost some momentum, to be honest.

But we are restarting this. We are taking on hundreds of interns, out of which 50pc are women PhD students.

We are engaging in high-school collaborations and we have artistic collaborations. The artistic community has always been very supportive of women and it is something we want to build a bridge to.

When we interview candidates for roles, it is 50pc female candidates we are getting and that is a generational change, where more women are passing through the bachelor and PhD programmes than in my era and there are many strong candidates.

We are bottom-up fixing the problem.

The hard problem to fix will be the management layer because that might be 10 years before our new people are ready for management. That’s the one we struggle with because if you don’t have enough female managers, then you don’t have enough role models. If you have great women coming in, and they don’t see female leaders supported, then they don’t feel supported and they may choose to go somewhere else.

We have a corporate target to get to in terms of women in senior leadership positions. The groundwork is being done; the struggle is that generational gap between now and the time when the programme worked.

That’s the gap we need to fix.

Marcus Weldon will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years