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Intel sees future with shape-shifting robots, wireless power

Chip maker's CTO says at IDF that human, machine intelligence will be similar by 2050

August 22, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The intelligence gap between man and machine will largely close by the year 2050, according to Intel Corp.'s chief technology officer, who yesterday reiterated that point during a keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum.

At the IDF event in San Francisco, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said that the chip maker's research labs are working on human-machine interfaces and looking to foster big changes in robotics and the way computers interact with humans. He specifically pointed to work that Intel is doing on wireless power and on developing tiny robots that can be programmed to take on the shape of anything from a cell phone to a shoe or even a human.

"The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago," Rattner said. "There is speculation that we may be approaching an inflection point where the rate of technology advancements is accelerating at an exponential rate, and machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason in the not-so-distant future."

Just last month, Rattner, who also is a senior fellow at Intel, made similar comments in an interview with Computerworld, saying that perhaps as early as 2012, the lines between human and machine intelligence will begin to blur. The intelligence gap should become awfully narrow within the next 40 years, he added, predicting that by 2050, computing will be less about launching applications and more about using systems that are inextricably woven into our daily activities.

In that same vein, Rattner talked about programmable matter during his IDF speech. He explained that Intel researchers are working to figure out how to harness millions of miniature robots, called catoms, so they could function as shape-shifting swarms.

"What if those machines had a small amount of intelligence, and they could assemble themselves into various shapes and were capable of movement or locomotion?" he said. "If you had enough of them, you could create arbitrary shapes and have the assembly of machines that could take on any form and move in arbitrary ways."

The basic idea is that the catoms, which one day should be about the size of a grain of sand, could be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to cling together in various 3-D forms. Rattner said that Intel has been expanding on research work done by Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We're actually doing it for real," Rattner said. He added that Intel started "at the macro scale," with catoms that were "inches across." The robots had microprocessors associated with them and could attract or repel one another via electromagnetism or the use of electrostatic charges, according to Rattner. "It's programmable matter," he said.



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