IDF 2012: Does Intel dream of electric sheep?

Intel’s Day 0 presentation was somewhat unconventional. Listening to a panel made up of Intel researchers and science fiction authors talk about the stories they’d written for new anthology seemed a bit wide of the mark, and certainly not what the gathered media was expecting. So what was Intel thinking?

I grabbed some time with Genevieve Bell – Director, Intel Labs – to discuss what was going on with the science fiction writers and their emotional houses, child psychopaths and talking animals. And it seems that what Intel is trying to do isn’t quite as unconventional as I first thought.

Bell pointed out that there’s a reason why science fiction isn’t just called fiction – much of it is based, at least to some degree, on science fact. In many ways sci-fi authors are futurists, taking what’s real or at least theory, and extrapolating it to a logical (or not so logical) conclusion.

The relationship between Alan Turing and Philip K. Dick is well documented. The similarity between the Turing Test and Dick’s Voigt-Kampff machine is one of the clearest examples. But what if you could engineer those relationships? What if you could partner science fact with science fiction?

It’s called Science Fiction Prototyping, and it’s just one aspect of Brian David Johnson’s remit, as Intel’s lead futurist. Johnson’s job is to look ten years into the future and predict not just what technologies we’ll be using, but also how we’ll be using them. That’s where Science Fiction Prototyping comes in.

Of course it’s not simply a case of inviting random sci-fi authors to collaborate with Intel researchers, there’s some vetting involved. Johnson says that he first looks for authors who actually have relevant scientific qualification. This ensures that they will be able to communicate with the researchers on the same level, and understand the science that’s being studied.

The next check box on Johnson’s list is that any prospective authors must be focusing on the near future, rather than thousands of years ahead. Since Johnson and his team are trying to unravel what might be happening ten years from now, he needs writers who are imagining a similarly futuristic world.

Johnson was keen to stress that Intel doesn’t try to influence or guide the writers. In most cases each author is just partnered with a specific researcher and given access to their time and work. The resulting stories, ideas and visions will help Intel to model the future, and create a roadmap to get there.

The big ten year vision right now, as mentioned by Johnson on Monday, is compute zero, or truly ubiquitous computing. The idea that everything and anything can be a computer is pretty compelling, but there’s a lot of hurdles to get over before we can get close to that reality – reduced fabrication process, improved insulation, power source and perhaps even silicon photonics.

But Johnson’s future modelling raises another interestingly paradoxical question. Would the engineers make the specific technological breakthroughs without Johnson’s future modelling as a virtual road map? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing since clearly technological progress was being made before futurists like Johnson were around. However, having a reason, a viable goal with a clear benefit to consumers or the world at large is a strong inspiration for innovation.

It’s also important to remember that the work done by Johnson and Bell isn’t just about technological advancements; it’s about the effect of those advancements on the world.

Assuming that the ten-year goal is ubiquitous computing, it isn’t just having compute power in every object you own and interact with, it’s about the gargantuan levels of infrastructure that would come with it. If you think big data is a problem today, think about how much of a problem it will be when everything from your coffee machine to your toothbrush is logging data about you, itself and the world around it.

That’s why the one prediction that Johnson can absolutely guarantee, is that his ten year model will change, because the world will change, people will change, and most importantly, our wants and needs will change. Johnson doesn’t have a crystal ball to the future, but he can help us get there, technologically at least.

On Monday Johnson made a very bold statement, a statement that was repeated by Dadi Perlmutter the following day – “The technology we’re building will touch the lives of everyone on the planet.” That seems a very unlikely scenario, but only if you view technology in absolutes.

Johnson isn’t suggesting that every person on earth will be using an Ultrabook, smartphone or tablet. What he’s saying is that in some way, Intel technology will touch the lives of everyone, either directly or indirectly. This could be a case of a water purification plant using Intel compute power, or a medical facility developing vaccines on Intel hardware – it might be a case of six degrees of separation, but it still plays out.

The key, as always, is benefit. Even in the developed world most consumers don’t care about technology, they care about the benefits it will deliver them. And that’s what makes people like Brian David Johnson and Genevieve Bell so important at a company like Intel - they can see past the technology itself and focus on how it will improve peoples’ lives.

Technology is important, but as Philip K. Dick made clear, it needs to be a benefit to people that use it. And if technology is developed and refined with those human benefits in mind, the future is going to look pretty good.

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