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Intel CTO: Smart Sensors, Wearable Tech Coming Soon

Touchscreen Ultrabooks might be cutting edge today, but Intel CTO Justin Rattner says it's nothing compared to the next generation of smart sensors and wearable technology just around the corner.
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.