NEW FRONTIERS IN COMMUNICATIONS. Andrew Viterbi is an Italian born American electrical engineer and businessman who co-founded Qualcomm Inc. a company that transforms theoretical concepts into practical means of communications. He is celebrated for the invention of the Viterbi algorithm, the key building element in modern wireless and digital communications systems, touching the lives of people everywhere.
Professor Viterbi, you were born in Bergamo in 1935 and were obliged to emigrate from Italy to America with your family in 1939 because of the racial laws against the Jews in Italy. Your family arrived in New York, you lived in Boston through your teenage years, and then you moved to California. Why California?
I studied Electrical Engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) receiving Bachelor and Master degrees in 1957. I chose the EE Department (now called EECS – Electrical Engineering & Computer Science) because it was the closest field to applied mathematics, a discipline I practiced the rest of my career. Its launch owed much to the distinguished professors under whom I studied. Then I moved to California.
At the time the leading companies involved in the missile race, which shortly was to become the Space Race, were located on the West Coast. The best ones, Hughes Aircraft, TRW and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory all made me offers. They were adopting the latest technologies which had just come out of the advanced R&D laboratories which had helped win the war. Their management style enabled innovation, while East Coast management had remained in the culture of prewar traditional manufacturing. I never regretted the move, a decision which was further validated as the Space Age dawned just a few months later.
How did you begin your career in California?
Economic necessities led me to employment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) managed by Caltech in southern California. Arriving in June 1957, just four months before the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, I participated in the development of the first U.S. satellite and the first years of the NASA unmanned space and lunar exploration. Simultaneously and in parallel with the research I performed at JPL, I attended the University of Southern California (USC), receiving the PhD degree in 1962. The next year I received the offer of an Assistant Professor position at the neighboring University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where I remained for a level decade of fulltime research and teaching, attaining the Senior Professor rank in 1969.
“The algorithm was one step in producing the most efficient and effective way to avoid errors in digital transmission.”
Born in Bergamo, Italy in 1935 Andrea Giacomo Viterbi’s parents changed his first names to Andrew James after they were obliged to emigrate to America. The inventor of the Viterbi Algorithm is shown here with the key formula pertaining to the algorithm, written out for an interview.
Professor Viterbi, in 1967 your life changed when you discovered the so called Viterbi algorithm. Can you describe this process and what are the consequences of your discovery?
While I had a “Eureka” moment in 1966 (leading to publication in 1967) which was very exciting, the story is much more complex. First, the algorithm was one step in producing the most efficient and effective way to avoid errors in digital transmission. At the time the telecommunication industry was not prepared for digital transmission, favoring instead the traditional analog technology employed since the early 20th Century in AM and later FM broadcasting. The argument against digital was its cost and complexity. Only in satellite and space communication were the early digital communication systems employed, because of their power efficiency, which is critically important for transmitting over planetary distances. With the exponential progression of solid-state electronics according to “Moore’s Law”, complexity and costs decreased to the point that they now dominate the consumer electronics market for all forms of communications, terrestrial and space, and beyond that to digital devices for virtually all types of applications. The largest users of digital communication technology are TV broadcasting, the mobile phone and eventually the Internet, most often accessed by a “smartphone”.
Later with Irwin M. Jacobs you founded first Linkabit Corporation and then Qualcomm Inc. in 1985. At Qualcomm you were a major contributor to the so called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology used in cellular phone networks and elsewhere. Please explain what happened?
I co-founded two companies with another academic, Irwin Jacobs, an individual with superior talents in a wide variety of activities, from applied mathematics to system design and development, and who also displays exceptional business and managerial skills. Qualcomm began as a small communication R&D laboratory with an unorthodox approach which had the nerve to challenge the communication titans of the U.S., Europe and Asia. After a struggle to win approval of its CDMA technology alongside the TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) implementation of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) in the early digital cellphone era of the 1990’s, Qualcomm’s patented inventions became the primary basis for the 3G systems of the first decade of the 21st Century. In the second decade a further advance, designed specifically for the Internet and labelled 4G, was pioneered by Flarion Technologies, a Bell Labs spinoff which was acquired by Qualcomm in its early stages.
Why did you retire from Qualcomm in 2000 and then found the Viterbi Group?
As much as I enjoyed participating as the chief technologist of Qualcomm in the transformation of theoretical concepts into practical means of communications reaching the majority of the planet’s inhabitants, after a while the everyday business roles of marketing and sales became tiresome. I established for myself a milestone of age sixty-five, which coincided with the start of a new millennium, to retire from an intensive business role. I did not fully give up my technology interests though, advising companies in which I also invested and serving on corporate boards, large and small, including Motorola Mobility and Flarion before its acquisition.
When you started in all this did you imagine what is happening today in the technological world?
“I believe that China has some fundamental weaknesses in originality and organizational structures, but great strength in numbers and a controlled economy.”
Andrew Viterbi, today the Chinese are challenging American technological superiority and there are trade wars. Do you think that Chinese technological advancement is a real danger for the United States and other western countries? Is America going to lose its primacy?
The People’s Republic of China has about five times the population of North America. It is claimed that over a short period China has founded a thousand technological colleges and universities. With such numerical supremacy, there will be a reasonable percentage of intelligent and capable members. The problem is with the cultural traditions which do not foster individuality or originality. Even with rapidly increasing publication rates, the originality of ideas is lagging. Corruption and bias in favor of class and political party affiliation are also endemic. In my experience South Asians have more drive and originality than East Asians. Asians in general live in closed societies, but East Asians do more so. In contrast, Americans are welcoming of strangers and the cultural and technical elite foster meritocracy independent of origin. This is true even in times of political exclusion of immigrants, the present sadly being one of those times. I am no economist, but it is evident even to a lay observer that trade wars will weaken the economies of all participants, U.S. and China most. China does in addition have unfair advantages. One is the theft of Intellectual Property and disregard for patent protection. Government support through financing, special tax treatment and other benefits for Chinese companies in critical technologies is another way to tilt the playing field, though this is not unique to China. Other actions which are not illegal involve negotiating the adoption or exclusion of a particular technology based on surrendering technical details or source computer code, with the carrot being entry into a market of potentially up to 1.5 billion consumers; another demand may be the opening of an R&D facility half-owned by the Chinese government or its favored local companies.
In summary, I believe that China has some fundamental weaknesses in originality and organizational structures, but great strength in numbers and a controlled economy.
Robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are with us today and are destined to grow in importance. Robots will become ever more versatile and displace more humans who perform repetitive unchallenging operations. AI/ML with the benefits of enormous memory storage and extremely fast processing will challenge even what today is considered “intellectual labor”. Together these will create a problem for society and probably favor tyranny over democracy. We have seen over the past quarter century how this has already played out in the media. In 1993, in delivering the keynote address at the Marconi Awards Ceremony, with misplaced optimism, I predicted that universal access to the digital highway would empower democracy movements and diminish reactionary governments. We now see that the opposite has happened, as lies borne by human tweets and messages distributed by artificial sources known as bots have invaded the Internet, mis-informing the ignorant and the biased, with consequences reminiscent of the rise of past dictatorships.
Having worked for many years close to NASA, satellites and space, do you see a future for the human race beyond earth?
Practically since the founding of NASA sixty years ago, there has been an internal unpublicized struggle between its Centers engaged in “manned” and “unmanned” space missions, with Houston-based Johnson Space Flight Center leading the first and Pasadena-based JPL representative of the second. To support human life on the moon and even more on the planets, including bringing it there and back to earth, is an extremely difficult and costly endeavor, making manned space mission budgets orders of magnitude more challenging and expensive than the unmanned ones. Witness the successes of the “Mars Landers” over the last few years, in contrast with the as yet incomplete plans for taking humans to Mars a decade or two hence, perhaps. As the development of “smart” robots aided by artificial intelligence progresses, a Mars unmanned mission will become feasible at a much lower cost and risk than the manned variety, and probably even with better results. Note that AI is critical for the unmanned mission, since full control at planetary distances is rendered impossible by the time delay resulting from transmission over planetary distances; note also that the return part of the mission is optional and that a failure does not cost human lives.
So, in a nutshell: No, there will not be human colonies on other planets, at least within the lifetimes of today’s newborns, but there most probably will be equipment for scientific purposes and possibly also for resource exploitation.
“New capabilities provided by revolutionary technologies do not guarantee a dramatic change in user experience.”
Professor Viterbi, what are the limits of digital solutions – this new world is only a very few years old?
There is no limit to the human drive to invent. Consider that the wheel was invented without the benefit of Newtonian physics, while the integrated circuit whose parameters grew exponentially with time did benefit from solid-state theory, but this growth may soon come to an end, blocked by known physical limits. Yet, even then I expect that another physical phenomenon will be harnessed to produce further progress with new startling consequences.
We are in the midst of a tremendous and recent technological revolution. What are we looking at 10 years from now?
It is appropriate that you propose looking ahead no more than one decade in this rapidly accelerating technology. Let me illustrate the difficulty, if not the folly, to attempt long term predictions of the effects of rapidly evolving technological advancements. In the year 2000, the wireless mobile telephone industry was beginning its second digital decade. The first digital decade, the 1990’s, had established the preferred digital technology and now the worldwide standards consortiums were establishing and agreeing on a single digital standard. In my recollection, all the players were seeking a reliable network which would ensure better error-free voice service in which conversations are not prone to be dropped in problematic environments; this became 3G. At the time, hardly anyone was concerned with streaming and email on the Internet. A decade later, all the emphasis was on messaging and streaming data; voice was secondary at best. This became the 4G standard for the 2010 decade and by 2015 Internet access through cellphones renamed “smartphones” was all the rage. They had become the means to shout digitally through tweets, to read email, to access stock market data, weather reports, streaming podcasts and TV programs, etc., etc. In 2018, the number of smartphones shipped by manufacturers topped 1.5 billion and nearly half the world’s population had the use of such a device! The Personal Computer which previously had been the device for accessing the Internet had dropped to second place and its annual sales had dropped 20% from their peak at the start of the decade. We are now at the threshold of 5G, an even more ambitious technology which exploits the merits of wider bandwidths available at higher frequency ranges, requiring smaller cells which are justifiable in urban areas with larger population densities. What, however, will be the value to the consumer in 2025 when the new 5G generation of devices and networks reach maturity? Will it have the type of transformative effect that 4G has had in the present decade? In short, new capabilities provided by revolutionary technologies do not guarantee a dramatic change in user experience.
You are an American citizen but seem to be very attached to your Italian Jewish roots and to Israel?
My adherence to Judaism has its roots in the Holocaust and the Italian Racial Laws of 1938, which uprooted my parents’ lives depriving them of economic means and their former status in society. More than this we were fascinated by the birth of Israel and its rise from the ashes of the Holocaust and through its survival and success in spite of overwhelming forces determined to destroy it. I have visited the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology scores of times to lecture and share in research over a half century. Technion is the catalyst of much of Israel’s success as a “Startup Nation” initially rising to serve the nation’s Defense imperatives.
I feel a strong sense of Jewish identity. To impart it to my children and grandchildren, in middle age I also introduced in my life a degree of Jewish religious practice, which had been absent in my childhood and youth. The discovery that there was an Italian Jewish institution in New York, named in memory of my famous and remarkable cousin, Primo Levi, finally reunited my two origins together with my American experience.
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