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Intel Demos Wireless Power, Robotics, 'Programmable Matter'

Justin Rattner, Intel's CTO, showed off the company's up-and-coming technology at the final keynote of the chipmaker's Developer Forum.
Rattner's keynote took a look at the next 40 years of technology in honor of Intel's 40th anniversary. Intel's work on robotics was one area covered.

Joshua Smith, principal engineer at Intel's research facility in Seattle and the leader of the wireless power project, showed a robotic arm that could sense an apple placed in front of its claw, grasp the object, and then drop it into someone's outstretched hand. Among the key innovations is the sensor used in the robot. Rather than a camera, the sensor uses an electric field to identify objects, similar to how some fish identify their surroundings.

Smith, who also heads Intel's wireless power project, said the advanced sensor could one day make it possible to introduce the robots used on the factory floor into "a human environment."

As computers become smarter and robots more sophisticated, security becomes an issue. Rattner claimed that at the current pace in which computers are becoming more powerful, they could one day become smarter than people. If that was to happen, then how do you ensure control?

During a meeting with the media following the keynote, Rattner did not address the issue directly. However, he said Intel is working on developing computer systems that can dynamically lock code or information selectively, so the rest of the system can remain open to communication with other devices or computers. "The platform can close locally to contain certain information securely," Rattner said. The idea is to enable an otherwise open system "to close when needed." Such technology could be introduced over the next four to five years.

Rattner also highlighted during his keynote Intel's work in programmable matter. Company researchers are investigating how million of tiny micro-robots, called catoms, can be used to build shape-shifting materials.

Although the work is listed as exploratory research, Jason Campbell, a senior staff research scientist brought on stage to discuss the project, said steady progress is being made.

To build functional catoms, Intel is using novel techniques that borrow from processes now used to make silicon chips. Intel eventually wants to bring all the necessary computational and mechanical components of a catom into one package less than a millimeter across.

If such research is successful, then people could one day have a computer that fits comfortably into a pocket, but can also be stretched and shaped into a full-size traditional notebook. The same manipulation, theoretically, could be done with a mobile phone or other gadget.