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Intel recently killed off its three industrial-research "lablets" in Berkeley, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Hardly anyone seems to have noticed, and that's a terrible shame: Privately funded industrial research has given the U.S. and the world some of the most dazzling engineering innovations in history, and its slow demise could stymie innovation in ways that we may never fully appreciate.

Research at Intel, proper, is not going away: it's called Intel Labs, and it is of course focused on innovation that is within spitting distance of affecting Intel's bottom line. In that respect it's like almost all corporate R&D. What is going away is an experiment conducted by Intel in freeing its researchers to conduct research a bit further afield.

In this way Intel was following in the grand tradition embodied most fully by AT&T's Bell Labs. Supported by a monopoly, researchers at Bell Labs were free to do the kind of basic research normally supported only by governments. That is, research that wouldn't necessarily lead to a product on any time-scale considered reasonable by today's next quareter-obsessed corporate world. Bell labs brought us Unix, the laser, the transistor, and too many other inventions to name.

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Category: Science