Huawei Rolls out the Red Carpet for Science
Earlier this summer, a soft-spoken Turkish professor received a major award from one of the largest companies in the world.
"I am honored to be here today receiving this award," Dr. Erdal Arikan said to more than a hundred of his fellow scientists and engineers. "As engineers, there is no greater reward than seeing our ideas turn into reality."
The story behind this award is an interesting one. To start with, you might know the company who issued it. Their networking equipment connects more than half of the earth's population, but you probably know them better as the second-largest producer of smartphones in the world. A name hard to pronounce but no stranger to headlines: Huawei.
Huawei gave Dr. Erdal Arikan the full red-carpet treatment, complete with white-gloved chauffeurs and an after-party that would put the Grammy's to shame.
But why the award, and why the red carpet?
Science is why.
Professor Arikan invented something called polar codes. Most people will go their entire lives never thinking or hearing of polar codes, and never knowing what they are used for. And yet this complex set of algorithms will change the way that we use the internet forever.
Here's the scoop: Your mobile device is connected through a radio signal. It's a technology that has been around for more than 100 years, but back in the 1940s, the scientific community was still exploring how to optimize radio waves for long-distance communications.
Back then it was well known that the faster we send information, the more outside "noise" will interfere with the signal. Imagine sticking your head out the window of a moving car. There's a speaker outside the car, and it's playing your favorite song. When the car picks up speed, the growing noise from the wind in your ears will drown out the sound of the music.
The same goes for wireless communications. The faster we transfer information, the more noise we have to deal with. In 1948, way before smartphones and the internet, back when computers were still the size of monster trucks, a mathematical genius from MIT calculated a theoretical limit for sending information fast and error-free. His name was Claude Shannon, the father of information theory.
For decades after his discovery, scientists have been developing new and better ways to reach Shannon's limit, using mathematical tricks and coding schemes to protect data from outside noise. Until now, we haven't been able to reach that limit, which means that our mobile internet connections aren't as fast as they could be.
This is where Professor Arikan comes in. In a paper he published in 2008, he defined an entirely new approach to coding information that pushes mobile communications up against Shannon's limit.
This approach –polar codes – brings us as close as we can get to maximum transmission speed with zero error. For this reason, 3GPP (the international standards body for telecommunications) have adopted polar codes in the standard for the next generation of mobile communications, 5G.
That means much faster and more reliable internet on your smartphones and other connected devices. Incredible new speeds and stable, error-free communications will change the way we work, interact, and manage our everyday lives through mobile. And that's why Professor Arikan was singled out for the red carpet.
At the awards ceremony, Huawei's founder, Mr. Ren Zhengfei, presented a medal to the professor. The medal, designed and manufactured by the Monnaie de Paris, features an engraving of the Goddess of Victory with a red Baccarat crystal.
Arikan was all smiles, and generous with his praise. "It gives me pleasure to acknowledge that, without the vision and technical contributions of Huawei directors and engineers, polar codes would not have made it from lab to a standard in less than 10 years."
Huawei is well known for its massive investments in new technology. They have invested over US$60 billion in R&D over the past decade, and have publicly committed to earmark 20% to 30% of their annual US$15-20 billion R&D budget to basic research alone.
These awards were a celebration of Arikan's achievement, but also a celebration of what can happen when the world works better across boundaries – scientific boundaries, national boundaries, and most importantly, academic and industrial boundaries.
In 2010, Huawei recognized the potential in polar codes to optimize channel coding technology, so they invested in further research to build on Professor Arikan's work. Through years of focused effort, the company has made multiple breakthroughs in core polar code technology, helping polar codes move beyond the realm of academic research and see the light of day.
Now all we have to do is keep our eyes out for 5G smartphones, and thank our lucky stars that explorers like Professor Arikan are out there pushing the boundaries of basic science to make life better for everyone.