Chloe Leblanc

Wizardry Without Wires

Thomas Lee and the Ongoing Revolution of Wireless Technology

“Why did you think this would be interesting?”

This is what Professor Thomas Lee’s elementary school teacher asked when she saw him proudly present a pair of broken walkie-talkies for Show-and-Tell. Since his early childhood, Professor Lee has always been drawn towards electrical objects. Today an award-winning researcher in CMOS wireless communication circuits and author of seven books, he has contributed to revolutions in the world of wireless technology. However, his journey into this field has not always been easy.

Right Place at The Right Time

At a young age, Professor Lee was fascinated by sounds that could be conveyed wirelessly some distance away. He kept this passion all the way through college, where he decided to major in electrical engineering. Professor Lee wanted to continue pursuing wireless communication, but in the 1980s, this type of technology was considered to be a dying field. After radio and walkie-talkies, what was left to be invented? Luckily, Professor Lee’s PhD advisor at MIT, James Roberge, let him delve into this “wireless passion.”

As Professor Lee puts it, his advisor asserted that “if you’re passionate about it, you’re more likely to come up with something interesting. You like it for whatever weird reason, so go ahead, feel free to indulge in it.” This unique opportunity allowed Professor Lee to work on wireless circuits using a particular technology called CMOS, or Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor, which is used inside computer chips, the source of computers’ overall power.

At the time, CMOS was still viewed as the low-cost, low-performance chip technology that it had been when it was developed for wristwatches and calculators; yet Professor Lee saw potential in the technology, believing it could somehow contribute to wireless communication systems. With each new generation, transistors become smaller and denser, allowing them to do more. So it seemed as though this CMOS could one day satisfy the needs of wireless technology, even though most researchers, including Professor Lee himself, were skeptical. Nonetheless, this was not a reason to give up. “I just wanted to push it more,” he says.

Professor Lee’s perseverance finally paid off when cellphones appeared. This new, revolutionary wireless technology,  gave CMOS a “killer app” to drive development and Professor Lee’s field of study was suddenly brought to center stage. In his opinion, this was just a matter of luck: “I just got in on the next historical trend.

The Rise of GPS

Professor Lee arrived at Stanford as a substitute lecturer in 1993, and joined the faculty the following year. He has led many innovative research projects since then, which notably brought him to create the world’s first single-chip GPS receiver. This achievement, a culmination of four years of hard work, was the first to prove how CMOS could be an outstanding alternative to more expensive technologies.

Explaining his accomplishment, Professor Lee quipped, “I have a tragically poor sense of direction, so I had an interest in building a navigational device!”

When he started working on GPS, only multiple-chip products were on the market. Given their rising recognition, dropping the cost meant it would become an almost ubiquitous technology.

Professor Lee recognized the challenges of the project. It involved twelve students from multiple groups, ranging from digital to analog and wireless. “Every day was a new ‘uh-oh.’ This isn’t going to work, what do we do next?” The team would reach a dead end very often. As he points out, “the probability of at least one student having a crisis was nearly 100% per day.”

However, to his surprise, the students pulled together. This experience, which ultimately secured their research breakthrough, was an invaluable lesson for him about the value of self-confidence:

“It’s okay to feel ignorant about something. That’s the natural state, so get used to that,” he explains. “Luckily, it doesn’t have be a permanent state.”

Outside the Laboratory

Professor Lee is not just a researcher. The first time he applied for a patent was during his senior year of high school.

He was seeking to invent an anti-pollution device for cars, and actually found himself learning more about patent law than inventing. This informal lesson on patents revealed itself to be very useful later on: “I had friends; they’re smart friends. So instead of doing sports, we said, ‘let’s start a company!’”

Today, Professor Lee is the founder or co-founder of four companies and the owner of 65 US patents.

He believes the best part of creating a startup is the spirit of comradery that emerges. “We all learned from each other. These folks are the ones that will be my friends until the day I die; these are just great people.”

Not all of Professor Lee’s companies have been successful, but in his eyes, what’s important is to be daring.

“Try something, and reach for the moon. Sometimes it won’t make it out of San Jose, but that’s okay.”

From History to Everything

Looking beyond his past laurels, Professor Lee often spends time pondering the future of wireless.

When discussing his interest in the history of innovations, he muses, “I can put people to sleep by talking about the history of technology, and the deepest comas will be induced among engineering students.”

Professor Lee believes that even though technology changes, humans remain the same from generation to generation. So his love of history stems from an effort to understand what motivates people to come up with their ideas, as well as what role accident and chance play in success. According to him, a lot of ideas have floated by people throughout history, but very rarely would an individual happen to have had the right circumstances and knowledge to take advantage of it.

Nowadays, more and more people have been wondering “What is the next step for wireless?” While struggling for an answer, Professor Lee looked into his history books and noticed an interesting pattern that had previously eluded him and everyone else: the history of wireless can be broken down into three revolutionary phases. The first one was the establishment of station-to-station wireless telegraphy, a form of wireless technology comprised of “dots-and-dashes Morse code.” It was not a people-to-people technology: messages had to be passed on to professionally trained telegraphers in order to be both sent and received. Then broadcasting was invented, which enabled voices to be spread out to passive listeners, thus expanding the number of people being connected from thousands to millions. The third revolution arrived with the invention of the cellular network, which today connects almost the entirety of the Earth’s population.

How can this exponential increase in connectivity be repeated? How can we go from billions to trillions? For Professor Lee, the answer lies in the “Internet of Everything.” The Internet of Everything would to allow us to connect the web to our world: our valuable things, our children and friends, our homes, and even our cities. It would enable us to understand and control our environment wirelessly. Such a project is conceivable, because the cost of implementing sophisticated sensing communication systems has dropped significantly. However, increasing the number of communications between humans and technology up to trillions remains audacious. This is why Professor Lee is currently working with his team to remove those scaling barriers to potentially increase connectivity by a factor of one thousand within the next two decades.

“Basically what’s at the core of technology is to make our lives better […] The Internet of Everything is going to allow us now to connect everything about our lives that we can possibly care about. […] What’s the temperature in that room that I’m going to? How can I find a good parking space? All sorts of intelligent decisions can be made if you can sense these things.”

Photo credits, in order of appearance: Flickr/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (broadband router); Thomas Lee (Lee working in lab); Flickr/Defence Images/Harland Quarrington (circuit board); Thomas Lee (official picture).