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Historical Spotlight: Bell Labs and Statistics

95 years ago, Bell Labs was founded as a joint project of AT&T and Western Electric.  Its primary mission was R&D for its parents’ fast-growing telecommunications businesses.  Since that time, Bell Labs became a fabled American research institution, but also suffered the vicissitudes of trying to reconcile its orientation to basic research with the needs of owners that have to make a profit.  Making a profit dictated a focus on more applied research that tied in to commercial products or services. Bell Labs went through various ownership changes starting with the breakup of the U.S. telephone monopolies in the 1980s, and is now owned by Nokia.

No discipline gained more from Bell Labs than statistics.  Among its alumni:

  • Walter Shewhart:  He developed the theory and tools of statistical process control, the foundation of continuous improvement procedures.
  • John Chambers:  He developed the computer language S, the forerunner of R.
  • John Tukey:  Inventor of the jacknife (the foundation of cross-validation), and the author of Exploratory Data Analysis, which gave rise to the sub-field of the same name.
  • Percy Diaconinis:  Noted probabilist and student of randomness, he left home at age 13 to become a magician.
  • Trevor Hastie:  He chaired the Statistics Department at Stanford, and co-authored several influential books in statistics and data science, including The Elements of Statistical Learning.
  • Yann LeCun and Yoahua Bengio:  Pioneers in deep learning, work for which they earned the Turing award (along with Geoffrey Hinton).