Intel's future: Cars with eyes, processors with engines

Company's researchers also take a page from sharks to give robots a sense of touch

Intel Wednesday laid out its vision of the future with a show-and-tell that focused on multi-core chips, cars with cameras and brains, and robots that use electromagnetic fields to sense touch.

Intel executives unveiled about 70 research projects that spanned from health care to wireless mobility, the environment and robotics during Research at Intel Day at the US Computer History Museum.

"We're looking at areas where Intel thinks it will need to have a role in the future," said Manny Vara, technology strategist at Intel. "We think, for instance, that robotics will be a very important field in the future. You're going to see more and more robots in people's lives, but to be useful they need to learn new tricks, like how to touch things without breaking them. Intel won't be building the robotic hand, but it could build the sensor."

Vara noted that Intel's researchers are interested in giving robots a sense of touch. And they're switching around some traditional thinking to do it. "Before, we tried to use technology to control the Earth," he explained. "Scientists now are looking at nature to get queues on how to better design technology."

Vara said scientists, in this case, are trying to take a lesson from sharks, which use electromagnetic fields to sense what's around them. If they can use an electromagnetic field with robotic hands, then the machine would be able to judge how much pressure to use in its fingers when picking something up.

"We're looking for robots to be in our everyday lives and not just in manufacturing plants," said Vara. We could have a robotic bartender. It would be good for it to know how to pick up glasses without breaking them. If you're going to help Grandma off the couch, you would want the robot to be gentle."

Vara also noted that Intel is working on different ways to multiply the number of cores in processors. Instead of just having a 32-core or 80-core chip, Intel is working on building tiny specialized core engines.

The engines, explained Vara, would be tiny cores - smaller than a square millimeter or 20 times smaller than today's average core - that perform one specific function, like encryption or video acceleration.

Using a core with a fixed function enables a process to be done at a fraction of the power consumption than multi-function cores, according to Vara. For instance, if it's designed to handle encryption, then it can do that job much more simply because that's exactly what it's designed for. And working more simply means the job can be done with a lot less power.

"You wouldn't want that today because if you have four cores, you don't want one doing just one function," said Vara. "But if you have 32 cores, you wouldn't mind if one or two did just that. If you can build a chip and add a tiny, tiny engine inside the processor, then we can actually use a lot less power, save electricity and lengthen battery life."

Intel also demonstrated a future car application that uses cameras as eyes and multi-core processor-based computers as a brain. Equipped this way, cars of the future would be able to quickly identify other vehicles and pedestrians that are getting too close and alert drivers or take its own safe actions to prevent an accident.

The chipmaker also focused on how mobile Internet devices, which fall in between small laptops and smart phones, could be more user friendly. Speech recognition and interfaces could be improved to help make up for the limitations their small size puts on physically inputting information. Intel researchers demonstrated how users could speak commands to synch their mobile device with a large screen television to look at photos.

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