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Intel CTO presents a glimpse of the tech future

Posted: 26 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:40 years  human intelligence  machine intelligence  CMOS 

Intel Corp.'s chief technology officer Justin Rattner devoted his keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) last week to "what the next 40 years of technology might look like."

"I'm addressing how we expect to see the gap between human intelligence and machine intelligence close over the next 40 years," said Rattner.

Intel commissioned futurist Ray Kurzweil to describe in a video presentation the quickening pace of technology that "may go exponential in the next few years—where technology is literally advancing on a moment-by-moment basis."

Rattner predicted that CMOS devices would not run out of steam until device designers switched from using electronic charges to encode information to something like the spin of individual electrons—an advance Rattner said remains in the distant future.

"If you are using charge to represent information, then CMOS is the most efficient architecture," said Rattner. "So our near-term focus is on improvements [in] processing."

Intel will embrace silicon-on-insulator (SOI) to isolate devices, rather than burying circuitry in bulk silicon. According to Rattner, SOI will enable Intel to build surface devices like Fin-FETS and Tri-gates, that wrap 3-D gates around thin-film channels atop a SOI substrate. He said Intel would likley turn to SOI at the 22-nm node.

"The important thing is that all these vertical structures will be on the surface, no longer being built in the bulk," said Rattner. "Once you are on the surface, you could even add III-V materials" like the indium phosphide material Intel uses for its silicon lasers.

Lifelike robots
Beyond CMOS, Rattner predicted that the amount of charge stored for each bit would become so small as device sizes shrink that a new representation for information will be needed—something besides charge.

"Will future electronic devices be charge-based like they are today for our CMOS technologies, or are they going to rely on some other quantum property like spin? Or might they use some sort of molecular technology where we use molecules to perform the logic function?" Rattner asked.

The Intel CTO also predicted that devices might be possible over the next 40 years that would give robots the ability to behave more like humans. Some devices could endow robots with unique abilities that humans don't have, such as the robotic sense called "pre-touch."

Pre-touch "gives robotic hands the ability to sense an object before it touches it," said Rattner. "This is the kind of sense that fish have: Sharks can do it and eels can do it, but if we ever had it as humans we've long since lost that capability."

A demonstration at IDF showed a robotic hand with a field coil and a sensor attached to each finger. When a finger came close to an object, it sensed a change in the field corresponding to a particular object. Intel's robot acted as a restaurant busboy, using pretouch technology to apply a force appropriate to collecting glasses and stacking them.

"Being able to grip is a fundamental ability for humans, so our question becomes, 'Can we imbue machines with a comparable capability?'" said Rattner. "We may see new types of sensor modalities, such as pretouch, coming into widespread use as a result of our attempt to mimic human capabilities."

And then there was light
Intel also demonstrated how energy might be beamed wirelessly to power devices using antennas tuned to a resonant frequency to transmit power to illuminate a 60W light bulb. Rattner claimed Intel's Wireless Resonant Energy Link achieved 70-per cent efficiency in a demonstration of wireless power transfer over two feet.

"At 70-per cent efficiency, we could wirelessly recharge all kinds of electronic devices—even laptops—just by building coils into work surfaces, and then bringing your laptop or other battery powered device into proximity to recharge it."

Rattner also predicted that cognitive radios would become essential for dividing up crowded frequency spectrum as the number of wireless devices multiplies. He said silicon photonics would soon enable ultawide bandwidth communications both on-chip and off. Intel is focusing its photonics efforts on developing silicon waveguides for optical communications powered by indium phosphide lasers.

Finally, Rattner predicted, there's "programmable matter."

"What if we could build nanoscale devices with a little bit of intelligence and mobility that could assemble themselves into arbitrary shapes? Imagine a future printing device that you fill up with programmable matter, push the button and out comes a complete 3D object capable of movement, colour [change], luminescence," he asked.

Intel researchers have fabricated identical millimeter-sized robots called "catoms," each capable of locomotion and attaching to other catoms. In a demonstration, a researcher commanded catoms to assemble into the shape of a car. Each catom autonomously moved to take its place. After forming into a car, the researcher picked up the assembled car and reshaped it.

"We are currently scaling down the catoms to the micro-scale, but the idea for the next 40 years is to reduce them down to the nanoscale where you won't be able to discern individual catoms," said Rattner. The next hurdle will be programming catoms. "What would be their instruction set? How would it be used to let them assemble themselves into the desired shape? Those are the questions that have yet to be answered," Rattner said.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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