By Jenna O’Donnell |
HOLMDEL – In the café at Bell Works – the historic former Bell Labs Holmdel complex – an old New Jersey Bell telephone booth sits next to a construction zone marked with a message that also adorns the shirts of the many workers currently renovating the vast space: “Please pardon our appearance as we Work Inspired!” With a nod to the rich history of the place where some of the most significant technological breakthroughs of the 20th century happened, Bell Works is looking to bring in a new generation of visionaries.
After nearly a decade of lying dormant, the mirror-sided Holmdel complex is waking up and entering a new era of ideas and innovation – even as it welcomes back many who helped build its legacy.
Vonage COO Joe Redling kicked off The Holmdel Idea Summit (THIS) with a keynote on the Bell Works Stage that touched on the heritage of innovation in New Jersey and his company’s pivot to cloud computing.
The inaugural event, co-sponsored by Bell Works and Vonage, was all about the big ideas that lead to true innovation. The June 13 summit was also a homecoming for many in attendance who had worked at Bell Labs – and some shared projects that evolved from ideas born in the Holmdel lab.
One of those ideas, deep learning, is being used to develop a self-driving car at Nvidia, a tech company at Bell Works. Urs Muller, a Nvidia developer who worked on neural networks at Bell Labs in the 1990s, showed how his work went from a computer recognizing handwritten numbers on paper to a car learning to steer itself around obstacles along New Jersey back roads.
Another Holmdel alum, Nokia-Bell Labs Executive Vice President Markus Hofmann, spoke about recognizing truly innovative ideas during his talk, “Driving Innovation.” One hint: innovative ideas aren’t the ones that people are eager to jump on to. More often, said Hofmann, they are the ideas that make people say, “You are crazy.”
“Never accept the status quo,” Hofmann said. “Never accept what you think is possible. Think about what we’re going to be doing 30 or 40 years from now. If you start with the status quo, you will very rarely have true innovation.”
Truly innovative ideas come from considering human needs and finding new ways to save time. Some of the greatest inventions in human history, Hofmann said, like planes, cars, cell phones, are the ones that save people time.
Human needs, time saving and pitching the “impossible” came into play as Michael Abelar, a student at Biotechnology High School in Freehold, spoke about claytronics, an idea plucked straight out of science fiction. Though programmable matter still sounds like it belongs in “Star Wars” or “The Matrix,” Abelar argued that this tech is actually the future.
“Imagine a world where people send tangible objects to each other,” he said, before delving into current claytronics research and the ways this could become a real, practical technology.
Rounding up the day, Chris Pfaff, a self-described “proud Bell Labs alum” and CEO at CPTM Media, applauded Bell Works for bringing the space back to life in the spirit of innovation and fun that was always part of working in the building.
“Holmdel Bell Labs was a hilarious place,” Pfeff said during his talk “Tech and Comedy” which touched on the fun side of working in tech at Bell Labs. “So much of what we take for granted in our world today…was created by goofballs.”
Forget Silicon Valley, Pfeff said, noting that New Jersey has bragging rights as the birthplace of modern computers, wireless technology, solar cells and lasers, to name a few things. From Edison and Einstein to the technological miracles hatched at Bell Labs, New Jersey has a proud history of invention the rest of the world should recognize. With that tradition still going strong in Holmdel he pointed out that the future is still growing here.
“So next time someone asks you where you’re from, what do you say?” Pfeff asked THIS attendants.
“New Jersey,” the crowd answered in chorus.
This article was first published in the June 22-29, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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