The future according to Intel

More efficient CPUs, connected cars and wireless charging: find out what Intel's research teams have in store

Intel is a company that’s always looking ahead – necessarily so, since it takes years to design and manufacture a new processor core. At September’s Intel Developer Forum, senior fellow Mark Bohr confirmed that, beyond the current 22nm Ivy Bridge architecture, work is already well underway towards 14nm chips in 2014, and 10nm around 2016 – with 7nm and 5nm chips to follow.

These die shrinks tie in with a bigger plan: to drive down power consumption. Last year, CTO Justin Rattner promised “a decade-long effort to take computing to new extremes of energy efficiency and performance”, committing the company to an ambitious 300-fold increase in power efficiency over ten years.

This isn’t just a green initiative. One benefit of energy-efficient cores is that it’s easier to multiply processing power. Intel’s recently announced Xeon Phi co-processor card points the way, offering more than 50 cores in a single package. For now, it’s aimed at specialists needing exceptional performance, but the concept could easily trickle down to end users.

Personal assistants

More interestingly, energy-efficient cores also allow devices to scale down. Intel envisages computing resources being so electrically cheap that smartphones and watches are as capable as modern desktops. With this sort of power, gadgets can work out what’s going on around them and become more like personal assistants.

Intel aims to achieve this partly using electronic sensor data – gyroscopes and accelerometers to monitor movement, and GPS and Wi-Fi to pin down your location. It could also listen to ambient noise and discern what’s going on.

Intel envisages computing resources being so electrically cheap that smartphones and watches are as capable as modern desktops

What Intel calls “soft sensing” is fed into the picture as well: for example, a device might make use of the contents of your calendar, inbox and history to offer you a particular link at a particular time. Researchers are even working on ways to combine social and location information for multiple individuals, to identify how your device should behave when you’re with different friends. As Rattner explained at the launch of the initiative, it all points to more proactive services.

“As your devices learn about your life, they can begin to anticipate your needs... Consider a context-aware remote control that determines who is holding it and automatically selects the Smart TV preferences for that person.”

On the road

One project that Intel is currently focusing on is what it calls the “Connected Car”. This isn’t necessarily a counterpart to Google’s driverless vehicles (see opposite), but an information system designed for the demands of being on the road, which learns from your activities and social context.

All these knowledge sources working together will allow future vehicles to adjust to your driving behaviour

Rattner promises that “technologies in development will allow the vehicle to know a non-trivial amount of information about the driver and other occupants. That knowledge will only increase as the vehicle is driven, making the car appear smarter over time.”

“All these knowledge sources working together will allow future vehicles to adjust to your driving behaviour, anticipate where you’re going without explicit input, and help you manage your life while you’re driving,” he explained.

Wireless charging

Intel’s main business may be microprocessors, but its in-house research extends beyond the confines of the computer case. A recent lab demonstration showed off a bespoke wireless charging system allowing smartphones and peripherals to charge whenever they’re placed near a PC or laptop, at roughly the same rate as they currently do over USB. “The batteries will never again run out on your wireless keyboard or mouse once we get this technology to market,” promised Intel’s Kirk Skaugen.

The batteries will never again run out on your wireless keyboard or mouse once we get this technology to market

There’s also a projector-based gesture-recognition system that turns any wall into a gigantic “touchscreen” – a technology we’ve also seen developed by Ubi Interactive in our Kinect for Windows feature.

And Intel also regularly demonstrates projects aimed at education, healthcare and industry. No matter what you do, there’s a good chance you’ll be affected by some aspect of Intel’s research in the next few years.

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