IDF 2012: Intel looks to the future

Day 0 at IDF is traditionally the day that Intel unlocks the door to its research labs and lets a few kittens, if not fully-grown cats out of the proverbial bag. Previous Day 0 presentations have highlighted themes like Tera-scale computing and photonic switching – cutting edge future technologies with a clear, definite and necessary purpose. Sometimes the stuff discussed during Day 0 is years or even decades away, but it’s still tangible and exciting. This year was a bit different.

Day 0 started off pretty interesting, with Intel Futurist, Brian David Johnson taking to the stage and talking about the future of computing. That future, as Johnson saw it, involved the ever-shrinking size of usable compute power.

As someone who started his career in high performance computing, I can see his point. I can still remember working on mainframes and supercomputers that required massive machine rooms, with ludicrous power requirements and even more ridiculous amounts of cooling. Over the years I watched that kind of compute power move to the desktop.

As things stand, the vast majority of computer users won’t even come close to using the full potential of a modern laptop, but things are still moving and shrinking. Johnson posed the question “Can we get the compute power from an Ultrabook into a phone?” – I don’t even think that’s a question, it’s just a matter of when, not if it will happen.

But Johnson wanted to extrapolate the compute shrinkage to its ultimate goal, throwing out the idea that by 2025 we could see zero size computing. By that, he’s suggesting that in a decade or so, chips will have shrunk to such a degree, and require so little power, that pretty much anything can be a computer.

The concept of ubiquitous computing is nothing new, but to put a realistic date on its ultimate implementation is quite brave. So, in around ten years time Johnson is suggesting that anything from your desk, to your watch, to the shirt on your back could be equipped with meaningful compute power, that can seamlessly integrate with you the user, or wearer.

Johnson also made another, very bold statement – “The technology we’re building today will touch the lives of everyone on the planet.” Unfortunately he gave no explanation as to how Intel planned to achieve this goal, but I’m due to meet with him later in the week and will be sure to ask that very question.

Likewise Johnson failed to expand on how Intel would realise its ubiquitous computing vision by 2025, something that I, and I’m sure everyone else in the room was keen to hear about. Instead we were presented with a panel who’s sole purpose was to promote Intel’s new Tomorrow Project book.

The upshot of The Tomorrow Project Anthology is that Intel researchers have collaborated with science fiction authors to write stories based on key research initiatives. And although the concept is interesting enough, the panel discussion failed to expand on any of the points that Johnson raised in his introduction.

Anyone who was keen to hear stories about buildings with emotions, communicating with animals and psychopathic nine-year-olds was in for a treat, but I’d rather have heard more about the technology innovations happening at Intel Labs, innovations with clear and necessary applications.

The one exception was Rob Enderle who explained how one of the stories he wrote was driven by his genuine concern about the excessive amount of digital monitoring that we’re all subject to. With sensors and cameras watching and measuring our every move, is the concept of privacy simply an illusion?

There’s no denying that Enderle has a valid point, and it’s also interesting that Intel accepts that point, given that it creates technology that enables such monitoring, tracking and data analysing. But again, there was little exploration into how to balance the benefits of such technology with the privacy concerns of individuals.

I don’t doubt that there’s an endless amount of cool stuff going on in Intel’s research labs, and it’s clear that Johnson has some great ideas, concepts and research to talk about. It’s just a shame that he didn’t really get the chance to do that today.