21 Jan 2011
I have just returned to the UK after a couple of days in the States, where US network operator AT&T took me and a few other journos on a press tour of both its New Jersey-based research labs and Global Networks Operation Centre (GNOC).
The day didn't start brilliantly, as we were all suffering from lack of sleep and jet lag, and I have to admit I was preparing myself for a day of being lectured on the ‘company strategy'.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Although there were the usual sales pitches from the corporate heads, the enthusiasm from those directly involved in technology development was palpable.
It is rare to go to a UK-based event and come back feeling excited about the future of technology, and so I have to say, much as I hate to admit it, that I think we can learn a thing or two from our friends across the pond.
The first thing that struck me was the intense focus on constant innovation. We in the UK have become more focused on this of late, and the government's recently announced intellectual property review shows it recognises that innovation and invention can be a big driver for growth.
At AT&T, and from what I gather this is standard for major tech companies in the States, there are currently over 9,000 patents accepted and the company is still filing two or three new applications a day. The company has an internal system that peer reviews potential patent applications, in much the same way as patents are considered at the national level – this peer review system is also being considered here in the UK.
If an employee has an idea, he or she must post it on an internal site where other employees can give the idea a rating. Following this, the best ones are put forward for application, while the rest are ditched.
Interestingly, these patents don't even have to relate to AT&T's primary business: if an employee has an idea that might appeal to firms in another sector, the AT&T will get it patented and then licence it out to interested parties.
This is what we should be aiming for here. The research labs were genuinely exciting – everyone involved is generating new ideas and this is what makes the US the leader in the technology field. And all this from New Jersey, thousands of miles away from the country's technological heartland, Silicon Valley.
The research labs also provided a great insight into what the future of technology might look like. There was a lot of emphasis on intelligent speech recognition software, as well as multi-modal security access.
We were shown a variety of applications based on intelligent voice recognition, where for example consumers are able to ‘speak' to their smartphones, which then carry out the demand. So, if you want information on Italian restaurants in central London, you say to your phone: "Show me Italian restaurants in Soho", and it will bring up a map with the details.
This has been developed so that you can message and even email using voice recognition. This will see people using a rather Star Trek-like device that will take care of admin and a whole host of more exciting tasks.
In terms of enterprise innovation, arguably the development of multi-modal security access is the most interesting of AT&T's developments. The limits of passwords and security questions are obvious, and according to AT&T, billions of US dollars a year are lost in revenue as a result of criminals gaining access to log-in details.
AT&T is currently developing a combination of personal information using biometric technology (multi-modal). So, depending on the level of security required, businesses may choose to combine voice recognition, iris scans, face recognition and fingerprint technology.
On looking to gain access to an enterprise intranet using multi-modal technology, an employee would type their username, which would follow with a message to your smartphone. The user would then have to, for example, repeat a message on the screen out loud, which if it confirmed the person's identity, would give them access to the web site as a result. If security needed to be high, this could be combined with the iris scan, or even face recognition. Very clever.
Another interesting innovation surrounds developing data collection. AT&T has developed some software called InteractiveX, which is being part-funded by the EU. InteractiveX allows an organisation to collect data and then be provided with an in-depth analysis in under 10 seconds.
This analysis will be presented in text format giving a description of what it represents, as well as visually in the form of graphs. AT&T showed how using twitter feeds, data could be analysed to highlight where in the world the most tweets were occurring and why over a certain time period. It was quite impressive to see how a large amount of data can be analysed and interpreted in under a minute.
The last few hours of the day were spent visiting AT&T's GNOC. This was presented to us in true American style with thundering music and flags flying, illiciting mumblings that it was all very 'NASA-esque'.
In a circular room, all of the network's services and applications run through the GNOC, where there is a focus on prevention of problems. On some of the centre's 141 information screens, there were twitter feeds and news channels transmitting feeds from around the world, as any large-scale event could suddenly clog up the network.
The centre processes 20 petabytes (20,000 trillion bytes) of data a day. It was a great insight into what running and monitoring an international network actually involves.