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Intel CTO Justin Rattner was trying out a new line when he sat down with InformationWeek last week during CES. "Someone asked me, 'Has anything impressed you?'" he said of the show. "I started to give my regular answer, which is, 'Oh, I can't possibly see everything at CES.' But then it popped into my head and I said, 'No, if it's here, it's already old news.'"
Rattner was mostly joking, but his comment set the tone for the half-hour conversation that followed. Nearby, thousands of companies, including Intel, were promoting today's definition of the cutting edge. Rattner's attention, though, was fixed on a more distant horizon. Touch-enabled Ultrabooks and smartphone apps might get the headlines today, he suggested, but in coming years, technology will achieve true contextual awareness, learning to manage not only our social preferences and schedules but perhaps even our DNA.
Touch-enabled devices have been making waves for the last few years. When asked what comes next, Rattner replied, "Going forward, sensing is going to be a big deal ... It's what's going to take us from this generation, largely inspired by the iPhone, to the next generation of devices that finally transcend this, that really embody this notion of pervasive access to information."
[ Intel won't let its longstanding Microsoft partnership stand in the way of growth. See Intel Hedges Bets, Gets Cozy With Android. ]
He described the process in terms of not only "hard sensors" that track physical attributes such as light, heat, pressure and motion, but also "soft sensors" such as a user's calendar, social network activity and Web browsing habits. "What context awareness does is collect all of that, some of which is up-to-the-minute on the physical sensors and some of which is accumulated incrementally over a long expanse of time through these soft senses, to create devices that really anticipate your needs," he said.
Rattner said such tools will "be like your best friend" because they will "know where you are in space and time, and understand the relationships you have with other people and other things." The challenge for programmers and engineers, he concluded, is "with that [sensing] knowledge, what will these future applications look like?"
If a proliferation of sensors will define the next major inflection point in personal technology, big data challenges will have to be overcome to make all the information actionable. "You're discovering the knowledge that's buried in this mountain of data," Rattner remarked.
He said cities provide a "perfect laboratory for looking at that stuff," explaining that Intel is currently involved in collaborative research with Imperial College London and University College London to develop the analytic tools necessary to understand what the data can reveal about the British capital.
"There's an opportunity at city scale to crowdsource a lot," Rattner said. To illustrate, he explained that in the event of a public health emergency, such as a hazardous materials spill, information aggregated from millions of sensors could help first responders act more quickly and effectively. "It may turn out that most of those sensors are things we carry around, always looking, listening, sniffing," he said.
As another example, he described a project developed by an Intel lab in Berkeley, Calif. Researchers attached particulate sensors to all the street sweeping vehicles in nearby San Francisco, allowing them to map with high precision which neighborhoods were particularly impacted by given airborne pollutants. "They didn't know what to do with the data," Rattner said of city officials. He explained that they'd relied on a single particulate sensor as the basis for all previous decision making, and that Intel's report, which used a color-coded system to represent the density of various atmospheric elements, wasn't particularly user-friendly. The government officials' difficulty in harnessing the information, he suggested, underscores the big data challenge.
"I think when we did that, we didn't really connect the data with the analytics," he remarked. "It was, 'Here's the data. What are you going to do with it?' Now, we deliver in a form people can understand and relate to and that makes recommendations."
Rattner said that wearable technology will help drive the proliferation of devices equipped for pervasive sensing. "We think that's going to come on strong in the next couple of years," he said, saying the concept is gaining momentum at Intel Labs.
Still, don't expect these new advances to replace smartphones and other personal devices in the immediate term. Rattner said he hasn't seen anything yet that makes him believe a major revolution is imminent. Even Google's much ballyhooed Project Glass, he stated, "tends to be an admission that the technology is not quite ready for primetime."
As tools and processes mature, though, Rattner said "everyone knows that the ultimate is: you want augmented reality, the virtual world overload on the physical world."
Rattner said that a new generation of data-hungry sensors demands new, highly refined chip designs. "If you're continuously sensing, you really have to create new hardware architectures that appear to give you continuous sensing but that are not really sensing all the time," he explained. "You don't need the room temperature updated every second."
Remarking that Intel has developed an "obsession" with energy efficiency, he said that the company's upcoming Haswell Core processors will possess some of these enhancements, intelligently shutting down certain processes that don't need to be continuously updated while running others in perpetuity. "The user should never be aware that some portion of the circuitry is off," Rattner said. "That means not just at the die level but in the die, across the die. There will be regions of very fine-grained control over where power is going. And that's what's going to usher in the next stage of hardware efficiency."
Intel's CES exhibit included a video that frequently referenced futurist Ray Kurzweil, technological singularities and a future in which new gear is embedded not only in devices but in the human body itself. When asked if this vision of the future will arrive, Rattner said that it won't be immediate but that Intel is taking steps by investigating bio-sensing.
"We're more interested in the direct interface between the physical electronic environment and the bio-molecular environment," he said. "How do you merge hardware and wetware and do so in such a way that you leverage the information technology to initially just understand the molecular structure of things as you sense them, and then ultimately manipulate the structure, where you go in and edit the DNA?"
He mentioned that Intel has already gathered promising results from experimental peptide arrays that can be used to more accurately diagnose certain ailments, and to personalize treatment plans. But in a few years, he predicted, "we'll have single-chip sensors with billions of individual sensor elements, and you'll be able to sequence your genome in less than a day, maybe half a day, and you'll be able to do it affordably."
He said the company has already figured out how to build sensors from which DNA information can be pulled, and that researchers have designed electronics that read out what the sensor sees at the molecular level. "The next step," he stated, "is the actual sensor elements, the thing things that contact the wet stuff."
The information onslaught Rattner describes implies profound societal shifts in terms of not only how technology mediates interpersonal interactions but also how we view privacy and security. Rattner said that Intel refuses to "engineer any mechanisms or cryptologic systems" that would enable a third party to extract information. "It's not that we haven't been asked," he remarked, "but as a matter of policy, we don't do that."
Part of the company's rationale, he suggested, is pragmatic. If the Chinese government were to believe that "Intel has put something in there that will let some security agency read out the contents," he illustrated, "that would be the end of Intel's business in China." Still, Rattner said the company "wants to enhance privacy and is cognizant" of the challenges.