Technology Today

2010 Issue 2

Raytheon BBN Technologies:
Persistent Innovation

More than 60 years ago, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) acoustics professors set up a small, architectural acoustics consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. The modest firm's first commission was an auspicious one: design the acoustics for the United Nations facilities being built in New York City. Requests for consulting work on lesser auditoriums followed and the firm — called Bolt Beranek and Newman — developed a reputation for excellent acoustics. Soon the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (forerunner of NASA) called on the firm for urgent help. The noise and vibration from a newly deployed jet engine were a major nuisance, and calls were lighting up switchboards in police and fire stations and local government offices. It had to be fixed. Seven months later, neighbors could not tell when the engine was running, and Bolt Beranek and Newman's reputation for acoustic excellence spread.

BBN founder Leo Beranek

Leo Beranek believed that every new hire should enhance the firm's capabilities. Because it was so close to Harvard University and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, BBN was able to recruit employees from the brightest, best-trained scientists and engineers, and BBN became known as "Cambridge's third university." The caliber of BBN's staff, combined with its reputation for tackling tough, interesting problems, made it the place where smart people chose to work. One of the bright new employees, J.C.R. Licklider, recommended that BBN buy a computer — an unusual acquisition in 1958 — but Beranek agreed. It was a momentous decision, paving the way for BBN's technology diversity and networking expertise.

Enabling the Internet

When the Advanced Research Projects Agency sent out the request for proposals for the ARPANET in the early 1960s, notable players in the communications industry were skeptical that such a network could work. They were even more surprised that the significant contract went to a small firm in Cambridge rather than to one of the communications giants. The notion of breaking messages into small packets and reassembling them at their destination was revolutionary, but with the implementation of the first four nodes of the ARPANET, BBN proved that not only could it be done, the idea could also be applied to high-speed networks transmitting messages across varied routes to dispersed destinations. This is the breakthrough idea that enabled the Internet as we know it.

Other networking breakthroughs followed in rapid succession. During the next decade, one of BBN's scientists, Ray Tomlinson, invented network e-mail and established the @ sign protocol, creating the digital icon for our age. At the same time, BBN was already anticipating the security requirements of the network technology on the horizon and demonstrated the first secure traffic sent over a packet-switched network and deployed the first IP-based network encryption. Other BBN networking scientists developed the first routers, and demonstrated packet broadcast satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean. Now BBN is known for deploying the first quantum-encrypted network, advanced software in support of the BBN Broadcast Monitoring Systemwideband-network waveform, directional-antenna networking technologies and security for critical networks, as well as for world-class expertise in very large ad hoc wireless networks.

Pioneering Speech and Language Processing

At the same time as the networking pioneers were making early advances, other BBN scientists were tackling tough lan-guage-processing problems and performing pioneering research in automatic speech recognition. By the mid-1980s, BBN had developed Byblos™, a high-performance, continuous speech recognition system. Since then, BBN has had many firsts in speech and language processing, including the first demonstration of real-time, large-vocabulary, speaker-independent continuous speech recognition on commercial off-the-shelf hardware. Current research programs continue to advance the state of speech recognition technology and deliver significant improvements in recognition accuracy for speech in different environments and in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish. Because BBN's natural language processing technologies can locate, identify, and organize information from a variety of sources and in multiple languages, they have enabled successful products such as the BBN multimedia monitoring system that transcribes and translates foreign Web and broadcast news in real time, giving U.S. analysts an immediate awareness of the events and attitudes influencing our world.

Boomerang wearable detection system
Continuing Acoustics Leadership

Even as the staff explored new technology areas, BBN maintained a leadership position in acoustics, frequently combining that knowledge with networking expertise to develop sophisticated sensor systems. BBN's acoustic expertise contributed to our nation's undetectable submarines; now it is saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan though the Boomerang shooter detection system.

In addition to continued work in networking and speech, BBN is applying its data mining expertise to healthcare to predict outcomes and spot early warnings of disease outbreaks. BBN physicists are developing next generation communication, sensing, transaction, and computation systems using quantum and optical techniques.

As part of Raytheon, BBN looks forward to transitioning advanced research in all these areas more quickly to the field to give our government customers every technological advantage.


Joyce Kuzmin

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