Pratt Trailblazers: Robert Calderbank

7/1/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Robert Calderbank continues to rewrite the wireless communications playbook decades after developing the space-time coding essential to today's wireless standards

Robert Calderbank of Duke University
Pratt Trailblazers: Robert Calderbank
Robert Calderbank

It’s wild to think that 30 years ago, the world was using dial-up internet to explore the potential of the internet. At the start of his career at Bell Labs, Robert Calderbank, a Duke professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in the field of signal processing, developed the voiceband modem technology that was incorporated into more than a billion devices. This included what was, in 1994, the fastest modem in the world, at 33kb/s.

And when your cell phone talks to one of those towers bristling with antennas, you’re using technology Calderbank developed in 1996 to improve the speed and reliability of wireless communication by correlating signals across different antennas. This space-time coding technology is still an essential element of a broad range of today’s wireless standards.

But Calderbank’s influence extends far beyond wireless communications; together with Peter Shor and colleagues at AT&T Labs, Calderbank developed the group theoretic framework for quantum error correction, which today provides the foundation for research in fault-tolerant quantum computation at the Duke Quantum Center.

As vice president for research at AT&T, he was responsible for creating a new type of research lab where masses of data generated by network services became a giant sandbox, which enabled fundamental discoveries in information science. At Duke, Calderbank directs the master’s program in Interdisciplinary Data Science, which equips students to thrive in this new data-driven world; he also worked with a team to launch Duke’s transformational +Programs, which challenge interdisciplinary teams of students to solve real problems in the community. Challenges range from mitigating urban heat islands to optimizing mental health services offerings in the Durham County justice system. The program, which launched with just 15 students in 2014, saw 225 enrolled last summer.

Calderbank is an IEEE Fellow and an AT&T Fellow, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005, to the National Academy of Inventors in 2014 and to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2023. He received the 2013 IEEE Hamming Medal for contributions to coding theory and communications and the 2015 Shannon Award.

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