by Richard Ellis
A NEWLY created communications research centre in the university city of Cambridge, eastern England, is harnessing experts from the
university and the communications industry to study problems such as privacy and the protection of intellectual property.
The centre has also begun work on network systems architecture, the
management of networks and the problem of paying for services on the Internet.
The creation of the Centre for Communications Systems Research can be attributed to the enthusiasm of a group of Cambridge academics who
saw the need for research in areas important for the future of the
industry, although at first they lacked a full-time director. This
became possible when a distinguished Canadian academic, Professor
Stewart Lee, agreed to accept the job.
Professor Lee went to Cambridge because he recognised its
pre-eminence in areas of computer science, such as privacy and
security, and because he believes it to be among the six or seven
academic centres of excellence in electronic communications.
"Given its size, that is always astonishing," says Professor Lee. "Unlike
many universities, including Toronto, which has 75,000 students,
Cambridge is very small. Its total number of students, including
postgraduates, is 15,000.
"We felt we could capitalise on Cambridge's excellence but we had to
avoid a problem that can easily arise when a company commissions a
university to pursue a particular line of research," he said. "Too often
the company fails to articulate the problem effectively. Too often
the university people, because of misunderstanding or ambiguity,
arrive at an answer to the wrong problem. They solve a problem
related to the question but fail to answer the question itself.
"We are quite determined not to get into that trap. We are
establishing teams of academics and people from industry, whom we
call industrial research fellows, who together attack a given
problem. The industrial research fellows come with a particular
object in mind and are full-time members of a team that will include
a Cambridge post-doctoral research fellow and some of our academic
members. We have already entered into agreements with Hitachi;
Alcatel; the British company, Micromuse, and the US Naval Research
Professor Lee and his Cambridge colleagues are striving to achieve a
balancing act between pure research and object-focused research. By
attracting industrial funds, which will benefit industry and the
university, the centre will be able to push on with other research
that in most cases will be relevant to the problems of industry and
"It is all too easy for academics to shin up the nearest available
ivory tower and disappear from sight," he added. "But that is not what
our objective is. Our objective is to keep our feet on the ground, to
try to be relevant to the problems that industry is having."
There are many challenges, says Professor Lee. One is to improve the
network technology known as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM).
Originating in ideas formed about 20 years ago, ATM has evolved into
a realistic international standard that enables manufacturers to make
their equipment compatible. But there is consensus that ATM could be
improved. The Cambridge centre is therefore setting its sights on the
future and will be working on ideas for a workable and satisfactory
network technology 15 years hence.
Another problem facing the industry is how to charge for services on
the Internet. How does a service provider pay for the communications
services that it uses? What method can be devised to ensure that
charges are linked to usage? The answer, says Professor Lee, is to
recruit applied economists.
"The involvement of applied economics is one of our great strengths.
In a centre of this kind one would expect to see engineers and
mathematicians. But to many people the inclusion of applied
economists would be a surprise. As in many areas of science, a
multidisciplinary approach is becoming essential."
Professor Lee believes that in some ways we are close to becoming an
Orwellian world. It is possible, he says, for unscrupulous people to
gain access to the health files of their fellow citizens.
"Sociologically this is very serious. We need to take measures to
ensure that the illegal gathering of information is not used in areas
such as insurance and employment."
One of the centre's projects will be concerned with digital
watermarking. Already there are methods being developed to
incorporate digital watermarking for the protection of network images
that have artistic or intellectual value. All the techniques under
consideration involve modification of the picture in a subtle way
that the eye cannot detect.
A huge challenge that is just over the horizon is the problem of
scale inherent in installing communications systems in the home.
Simply doubling a given number of connections is likely to increase
some related problems by a factor of four.
"However, we are just on the fringe of technology that will make high
data rate digital communications available to the home. Almost
certainly this will be through television. The telephone is too slow.
And one of the things that is driving this is the tremendous consumer
interest in accessing the world wide web."