As a young researcher at AT&T’s Bell Labs, Robert Lucky would roll pennies down the long corridors, listening to their sound long after they had disappeared from sight. He retained his curiosity and attentiveness when he became the executive director of research at Bell Laboratories. He spends his days thinking about people and machines and the different ways of knowing things. Some of these thoughts he put into his book Silicon Dreams.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Here in Holmdel, New Jersey, they are inventing the future. This is the AT&T Bell Laboratories, whose engineers are paid to imagine what the future might look like and how we can get there.
There's a robot here named Sam that can understand the commands of a human voice. "SAM" ROBOT: I will rotate the object as required to make a move.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This is an electronically wired glove that manipulates the pictures on a computer screen. And this is Robert Lucky. He's for real. As Executive Director of Research, he leads the Bell team that is plotting the next millennium. A graduate of Purdue University and recipient of the Marconi Award, Dr. Lucky has been at Bell Labs since 1961. Now his eye is on the year 2000, and beyond.
[interviewing] When you think about the future, do you think of a big vast canvas out there that we have to fill up, or do you think only about specific things you're working on at the moment?
Dr. ROBERT LUCKY, AT&T Bell Laboratories: No, I think of a vast canvas, but I'm a "techie," I'm a technologist, and I'm looking at possibilities. I mean, I have got a palette of paints to paint on that canvas, but I don't control the motion of the brush on that canvas. Technology throws certain kinds of things out there, capabilities, you know. Computers and what they can do for us, and communications possibilities. But the people decide what they want and what they don't want.
BILL MOYERS: But there are no councils of citizens sitting around saying, "Let's ask Bell Labs to do this, or to make that."
ROBERT LUCKY: No, that's the wonderful thing about it. See, I don't even know we're doing these things until I read it in Time magazine, or hear it-you know, I think the journalists are creating the future. They tell us what we're doing, you know, and we don't even know these trends are emerging until the media tell us about them. So it's a collective consciousness here that is choosing future paths.
Technology-I just think-we throw these things out, and we say, "Well, this worked, that didn't work," but technology takes up certain things, like the facsimile machine and the cordless telephone, the cellular telephone. These things go out there, and then we find that we're using them. I don't even know we're using them until the media tells me, and then everyone says, "Hey, we're doing this," you know, and we go on doing it. In communications, for example, we tried to market a picture phone.
BILL MOYERS: The old video phone.
ROBERT LUCKY: Video phone. Yeah, I could see you while I talked to you on it, yeah. Nobody wanted them. I mean, that's an idea that people always think of as the future of communication, you're going to see the person you talk to. But we actually had that in 1971, and people didn't want it.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think they resisted it?
ROBERT LUCKY: Well, I had one myself for two years, in my office, and so I sort of got to know about this thing. I think I had the last one in the world, actually. There wasn't anybody left to call. You don't want to be the only one in the world with a picture phone. But I thought that it used too much of me up. It took too much out of me. When you talk on a regular telephone, it doesn't involve all of you. You know, you doodle. Now I type quietly at a keyboard while I talk to people, and they don't know it. And you can only use part of your mind to do the conversation. But when you have picture phone, you have to stare at that person. And it takes you up. I find it intrusive. Like you're sitting home on a Saturday afternoon and the doorbell rings, you know. It's intrusive. You feel that someone has come in to where you live.
BILL MOYERS: But now, who threw out the idea of the video phone? Was it the technology having the capacity, or was it someone saying: "You know, maybe the customer will want this. Maybe people will like this. So we'll create it for them." In other words, do you think about what people want, or what's possible?
ROBERT LUCKY: Both. But I'm coming from the technology side, so I think a lot about what's possible. And then I think, "Are they going to want this?" Usually I think about, "Am I going to want this?" first. It's usually-
BILL MOYERS: The engineer becomes the consumer?
ROBERT LUCKY: I fell in the trap many times of saying, "I don't want this, but it ought to be good for people." And I always find that's wrong, you know. If I don't want it, no one else is going to want it, either.
BILL MOYERS: I've suspected for a long time that you engineers knew more about people than a lot of the rest of us, because you know what people do with what you make. What have you learned about people from your life as an engineer?
ROBERT LUCKY: Well, I was going to say a lot of people think engineers know less about people than anyone else.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but I've been suspicious that you must know something about us-
ROBERT LUCKY: Well-
BILL MOYERS: -or you wouldn't be able to provide us with all the things we don't want which we then buy.
ROBERT LUCKY: I don't really agree that we know more about people. For example, when I look at the last decade, the things that have happened in communication, I made a little list in my mind, and many of them were created by people pull. For example, the facsimile machine was invented 30, 40 years ago. It just languished there, and no one wanted it. Ail of a sudden, we all decided we wanted it. It was a social invention, see, it wasn't a technological invention. It was a social need that welled up, and jointly we all discovered that we could use this.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think the need was? Because now everybody's talking about having a fax. And I got along well without one for 50 years.
ROBERT LUCKY: And you didn't know you needed one. Right.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ROBERT LUCKY: I think it's part of this business of becoming, I think, fractionated, broken up in time and space. Life is so busy, my calendar is just-the conflicting demands that I can't possibly meet. I'm sure yours isn't the other way, and many business people, and even in our homes, we're just playing off this against that. And we want to be everywhere at the same time. And we can't do that. And so communications and technology have been giving us possibilities to displace ourselves in time and space. We want to be somewhere we're not, we want to be some time we're not. And the facsimile machine lets us do that. It lets you send a written message immediately, and so it displaces this time event to somebody else.
Of course, another thing is the cellular telephone, which is along the same lines. The phones in the cars-I thought, nobody's going to want-I don't want a phone in my car, and no one else is going to, either. And we had these market projections that said that, you know, that there's a small market for phones in a car. There are a few people who need these, maybe doctors or something like that. And basically, nobody else needs this.
But we were surprised, and the market estimates were all wrong. It's taken off fantastically. Maybe you don't need it, but it turns out you want it. So I think that, again, was a social invention, 'cause we had the technology a long time before.
BILL MOYERS: A social invention being the desire of people, again, to be in touch all the time, no matter where they are, even in-
ROBERT LUCKY: That's right. They don't want to be out of touch, you know. I even have a dog like that, you know. He gets nervous when I go off in the morning, because he knows he's missing something.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the day will come before this decade is out when we will be as the predictions were made in the late '70s, working primarily at home? Do you think that's the thing of the future?
ROBERT LUCKY: No chance. No chance.
BILL MOYERS: You don't-
ROBERT LUCKY: No chance. That's something I think maybe I've learned about people, and that is that we're social beings, and I really don't believe that telecommuting is going to be a big factor. I mean, there's this dream that you can choose to live wherever you want to, because it won't matter as far as your work is concerned. You can work from wherever, you know. If we all want to live in Hawaii or Tahiti or whatever, we can do that, because it won't matter. Place won't exist anymore, place won't be important, or what has been called the passing of remoteness: no longer will any place be remote.
And maybe technologically we could do that, but the problem is that people don't like to be like that. I'm really-if I'm only having an electronic presence, I'm not really there. And I think the workplace is a social place, and that you have to get physically immersed in the social place to be effective. You have to be people-networked. It's just not the electronic network, it's really people networking that counts.
And I'll just give you one little story that underlines the point. I was talking with a minister of commerce in England about this, Lord Somebody-or-other, and he said, "Teleconferencing will never work." And all of a sudden he reached out and he embraced me, and he said, "I need to smell the person I'm dealing with." And I'm just frozen, like, you know, I mean, my deodorant has failed, you know? And it's like, when these things happen, you can't think of a single thing to say. I mean, I just completely-my mind was a blank. And he went off, and I never thought of a reply. For weeks I tried to reply to him. But I finally understand what he meant, and that was, he meant smell as a metaphor for something that was human that wasn't conveyed by the electronics. See, I'm an engineer, and if he tells me he wants smell, you know, I just say, "Hey, he wants smell, give him smell." You know, we'll go design a smell board, you know, to put in the computer. But that wasn't what he meant at all. He really captured something there. He said: "Hey, there's something about a human being that isn't conveyed by the picture or the speech. There's something else there. "
BILL MOYERS: What more do we need technology to do?
ROBERT LUCKY: I think there are profound technological problems that have to be solved, and I think, to me, the most important have to do with the abilities of machines to be more humanlike, to understand language and vision, speech, those kinds of things. Those, to me, are very deep technological tasks.
But there's a lot we can do with the technology that we have today to improve our life in the future. And one of the things that I think we're going to get for sure is good document access, electronically, in the future. And that's something I really want. I want to sit at my desk at work, and I want to be able to browse through libraries, right at my desk, in a very convenient way. I want to see those books on my television screen. I want to be able to tum the pages, I want to walk down the shelves of that library as if I were there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think we will be able to do that?
ROBERT LUCKY: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: We'll be able to sit here and
ROBERT LUCKY: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: -summon from the libraries of the world what we want?
ROBERT LUCKY: Yeah, absolutely. We have to find better ways of getting at information, sorting it out and using it. If this is going to be the information age, we've really got to learn how to go round on these things. So that's part of it. But also, you know, I want to have some fun, and I think entertainment's got to be a big part of the future, too. And I always am searching for this sort of what I think of as realism in fantasy. And we all want to engage in fantasies
BILL MOYERS: Realism in fantasy?
ROBERT LUCKY: -right, yeah. We all want to engage in fantasies, but what we'd like to do is make them as realistically as possible. Right now we have television and pictures and our imagination, and I think we can certainly make this more realistic, and of course, the current technological theme is high-definition television.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ROBERT LUCKY: We take the television tube, and we stretch it out, make it wider and then we give it more resolution inside, so it looks basically like a 35millimeter slide. That kind of size, and that kind of resolution. So, I mean, that's going to make our entertainment a little bit more realistic, it immerses us a little bit more. One of these days maybe we'll have three-dimensional television, and we'll have whole walls in our homes. We're thinking of having walls in our offices, electronic walls where you deal with life-size people in your wall. And we have a setup like that over there.
BILL MOYERS: Life-size people?
ROBERT LUCKY: Yeah. There seems to be something different about whether you deal with a little person on your television tube or whether you deal with a big person standing on the wall here. I mean, this person would be life-sized, and there's something perceptibly different about it. But this is an example of trying to learn the human factor to this. You know, there's no theory that says that there's a difference here, or that's better, to deal with a life-size person or a little postage-stamp of a person.
BILL MOYERS: I can tell that in my own reaction to television. If it's what we call in my business a long shot, the person diminishes in size.
ROBERT LUCKY: Right.
BILL MOYERS: But if it's a close-up from about the second button on your shirt up, then I feel that I'm closer to another human being.
ROBERT LUCKY: That's right.
BILL MOYERS: And it does affect me psychologically. I hadn't thought of it, until you mentioned it.
ROBERT LUCKY: Yeah. Yeah, I've often thought that, going back to something like the video telephone, I'd like a little dial on the phone that's labeled "presence," you know. And if I tum this thing up, the person's presence increases. And maybe it means the picture’s getting larger and growing up, you know, and I could diminish it down. So if you're talking to a salesman or something, you'd want to tum the dial down to shrink the person, and then maybe the person's picture disappears completely, and you only hear the voice. And then the voice fades away and gets scratchy as I tum the dial down. But as I tum the dial toward realism, the voice swells and the picture grows and turns three dimensional. And if I turn it up all the way, the person's actually standing there, you know.
And it isn't clear that you always want full presence. Like if you're dealing with a salesman or something like that, or if you're handling the complaint department, you know. You really don't want all that much involvement.
BILL MOYERS: Is there no end to this? I mean-
ROBERT LUCKY: No, no end. There's no end at all.
BILL MOYERS: -no end at all.
ROBERT LUCKY: No.
BILL MOYERS: What started as puffs of smoke
ROBERT LUCKY: But see-
BILL MOYERS: -from the Indians, communicating to each other, and then there came the telegraph, click-click-click-click, and then the telephone, dial-dial-dial.
ROBERT LUCKY: -and now data that just whoosh, you know, I send you all these reams of information. But what I think we'll do is, see, the technology will provide the overkill in the information. Now we have a new communication medium, the optical fiber, and there are these little hair-thin strands of glass that are buried across the country, and they can carry a tremendous amount of new television, if we want to. One of the tasks for the next decade that we'd like to do is bring that fiber into your home. I mean, it's like we built a superhighway across the country, but so far, we don't have any on-and off-ramps.
BILL MOYERS: No off-and on-ramps.
ROBERT LUCKY: Well, there are, but they're major interchanges in cities, see, but it doesn't come to your home. To get to it from your home, it's like going through a drinking straw, you know. There's this giant pipe out there, but you've only got a little straw. So what we'd like to do is put this superhighway into your home in the next decade, and it could bring you a thousand television channels, it could bring you all the communication that you might need for the next decade. It's all possible.
BILL MOYERS: I was reading the other day about Congress looking at something called gigabyte. The gigabyte network. Have you heard of that?
ROBERT LUCKY: Doesn't roll off the tongue, does it?
BILL MOYERS: It does not come off the tongue. What is that?
ROBERT LUCKY: Gigabit network.
BILL MOYERS: All right. Gigabit. All right, so it's bytes of information-
ROBERT LUCKY: A bit is a one or a zero. And it's one cell of memory that the computer stores. It's the answer to one yes-or-no question. It's the most elemental form of information. You ask me a yes-or-no question, I tell you yes or no. I give you one bit of information. And I send that as one pulse of light or one pulse of current in an electronic circuit.
Now, a byte is eight of these put together, and the particular significance of a byte is when you touch a key on a keyboard, plunk, I touch an A on a keyboard, and we encode that into eight bits. An A is 0-0-0-1-0-0-0-1, for example. And no-it's 0-0-1-0-0-0-0-1, something like that, okay. But the point is that we have a table, just like the Morse code, that takes the letters of our alphabet into a sequence of eight bits, a code of eight bits. And so we call that eight-bit a byte. This is sort of elemental, you know, because a letter is an element of our language, and so we say, hey, that's one byte.
But a gigabit-a "giga" stands for a billion. So this is a billion bits per second. And that's the present-day capacity of optical fibers. We're making it more and more, but that's sort of what it is today. But Congress has this idea, specifically Senator Gore has introduced a bill that would build a gigabit computer network across the country. It's called the National Research and Education Network, and this network would connect up over the next decade about 1,000 research and educational establishments, our leading universities, and hopefully places like this, to exchange information at very high rates like this gigabit per second.
Let me give you another example of what a gigabit is. Your optic nerves carry from your eye back to your brain about a gigabit of information. Now, the brain just throws it all away and uses just a little bit of it, but when you're looking around, right now, you're ingesting about a billion bits per second. So that's the kind of capability we're talking about, and we said, what can computers do with this? What can computers do with this gigabit of information? And Congress is asking, well, look, we're building this new network, it's like building a highway out into the wilderness. And what are we going to use it for?"
And the honest answer is, we don't know. That's the honest answer, but of course, this doesn't sell Congress, you know. They say, "Well, you know, why should we build a new highway system if no one knows what it's going to be used for?"
And the point is, when we build roads, people seem to find uses for them. And you build a highway out to nowhere, next thing you know, you've got businesses along, traffic jams get created. And the same thing happens in communication. When you put in a new communication medium, a new communication highway, people find out how to use it. They discover new things. And I don't know what those things are. But we're going to connect up our premier researchers in this country, going to connect up our supercomputers, our researchers in physics and the people that worry about the human genome, and the astronomers that are trying to share all their astronomical data. We're going to connect up the digital libraries and the information banks, and we're going to give them a tremendous superhighway to interconnect those things, and we say, "Hey, what are you going to do with this?"
BILL MOYERS: There's got to be some body, some thing, some body at the other end to receive that and organize it, make use of it.
ROBERT LUCKY: Well, it's not just the voices. Your television signal, this show that hopefully is going out right now, takes perhaps 45 million bits per second, to convey this information. And it's being transmitted over various local telephone facilities to get to whoever's watching it right now on their television set. And then it comes out in another form. But somewhere between the picture that you and I are looking on each other right now, and the person's television set that is looking at it right now, these images of you and me have been changed into 45 million bits per second.
BILL MOYERS: [snapping fingers Just like that.
ROBERT LUCKY: So that's the chunk of your byte.
BILL MOYERS: So we all are receiving and sending bits and bytes.
ROBERT LUCKY: Right. That's right. All the time. It's-the world's made out of this stuff. It's intangible, too, you see. It's not like physical things. But the virtual world is made out of bits and bytes.
BILL MOYERS: The virtual world.
ROBERT LUCKY: The virtual world. That's the nonphysical world. The world that doesn't have any weight and size.
BILL MOYERS: And you live in the virtual world, and you live in this world.
ROBERT LUCKY: Yes. Yes. If you could reach out and touch information, you know, it certainly would be easier to deal with. But information is a virtual thing, and mathematicians and engineers and scientists have to learn to think in the virtual world. We have to imagine things that aren't real, but might be. And, you know, all those tests you take, aptitude tests you take when you're a kid, and they say, "Well, here's a picture of some, you know, ungodly surface, and we're going to rotate it 45 degrees, and what does it look like?" And if you're an engineer or a scientist, you can do that in your head. "Hey, I turned this thing around, and now it looks like this." And that's sort of the ability to imagine virtual worlds, nonphysical things.
BILL MOYERS: It's not just a cliché, then, the information age, is it? ROBERT LUCKY: I hope not. I hope not. No, look, it isn't a cliché, and my only hesitancy comes from my realization that it's not enough just to exchange information, that we also have to make things.
BILL MOYERS: Which we're not doing very much, are we?
ROBERT LUCKY: Which we're not doing enough of.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think the significance of that is, that we Americans are not making things anymore?
ROBERT LUCKY: It gets to the heart of the economy. I think one of the most pressing problems for us in America is to find a way to derive economic benefit from intellectual work. We are very good at intellectual work. We're bad at getting a return for it.
BILL MOYERS: The Japanese do that better.
ROBERT LUCKY: The Japanese.
BILL MOYERS: The Germans do that better.
ROBERT LUCKY: -well, the Japanese are dealing in material goods. And there's a tried-and-true system for deriving material benefit from that. One of the presidents of one of the large Japanese corporations told me, he said, "The reason that you're failing in America is because you've moved into the information age while we're still in the industrial revolution."
BILL MOYERS: Can you nurture information, harvest it, shape it, program it, package it and merchandise it in a way that will-
ROBERT LUCKY: Yes. We can do all those things. But we have to learn to get money for it.
BILL MOYERS: -yeah.
ROBERT LUCKY: And that's one of the tests. You look at the problems in software. The problem about information is, it's too easy to copy, it's leaky, it's too hard to control information. Information-it's funny, it's made out of nothing. And once you've made it, you can't destroy it. My image of the factories that I worked in when I grew up, a railroad track came in and brought raw materials in, and then the railroad ran out the other side of the factory and took out the finished goods. And that was the world to me, you know. In came the raw materials, out went the finished products.
But information, you look at the factories of today, there's no railroad track going on, there's nothing coming out. Nothing goes in. And only information comes out. And it's a virtual thing, and we have to find a way to sell that.
BILL MOYERS: What we have now is, we create the information, and other societies sell it back to us, in the form of-
ROBERT LUCKY: Of hard goods.
BILL MOYERS: Of hard goods.
ROBERT LUCKY: Durable goods. I think we Americans are very good at the information side of things, at the intellectual endeavor. If you look at the computer business, I think, of the material world on my left and the virtual world, the nonphysical world, on my right, and over here we have the basic devices like transistors and circuits, then we have the computers, and over here we have software. And then over at the far right we have systems integration, knowing how to plug things together. And we Americans are very good at these things out here, the software and the systems integration. We're fair at making computers, and we're really lousy now at making the basic devices, the seed com that the computers are made out of.
BILL MOYERS: Doesn't part of that answer require redirecting some of the research? The research is now-I mean, it's backed by billions of dollars, much of it comes from the government, aimed for military purposes, and much of it is now bankrolled by corporations whose main interest is the next quarter. We don't have patient capital in this country.
ROBERT LUCKY: Oh, absolutely. Research is a long-term investment, and it requires patient capital, there's no question about that. It requires someone to look past the next quarterly return. We think of research as being in the five-to ten-year interval. You're not going to see a return on this until you're downstream five to ten years. And what American business leader can persevere in investments like that? And I feel worried about research and any long-term investment in technology. And I used to blame the people on Wall Street. I thought they were greedy, you know, and they were endangering my livelihood by their short-term greediness. But, you know, you grow up a little and you realize that it's not just them, it's all of us, it's our American system that demands this. I mean, we have to change our basic habits as a nation, which we're not going to do, in order to get this patient capital. I don't think anybody knows how to do it.
BILL MOYERS: There's something else, too. We are an adversarial society. And so many of the other societies that we're competing with are cooperative societies.
ROBERT LUCKY: Yeah. We're looking for models of cooperation in technology. Japan has a system where the various corporations in Japan cooperate on research types of projects, and then when it comes to fruition, they each take it their own directions. But they have a government consortium that puts companies together to do basic kinds of research. And we're looking at that as a model of behavior that perhaps we should emulate more in this country. And we set up things like Serna tech, which is a consortium here in America of electronic companies to build basic electronic circuits.
But we're experimenting. We don't naturally cooperate nearly as well as the Japanese do. Maybe their island culture, you know, of togetherness, forced togetherness, makes them cooperate better than we. But all we know how to do is compete. Our laws are structured that way, anti-trust laws: "Thou shall compete."
BILL MOYERS: The anthropologists will tell you -I've talked to several -the anthropologists will tell you that in the strain of the human race, cooperation has paid off more often than competition. But it's not a lesson we seem to have applied successfully in this country.
ROBERT LUCKY: I don't think that's in our nature as Americans. We've learned to compete, you know, that's where we're coming from.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We'll conclude our conversation with Robert Lucky, and talk about the computers in our future, next time on A World of Ideas. I'm Bill Moyers.