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Intel pumps $100m into university research

Philanthropy or enlightened self interest?

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Intel is launching a $100M, five-year program to juice university research in the US on advanced computing projects, an effort that will attempt to walk the fine line between pure research and marketable product development.

"What makes this different from other industry efforts to engage the academic researcher is that we're putting our people on campus, and they will be an integral part of the centers," Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday morning when announcing the Intel Science and Technology Centers effort.

"One of [the Intel researchers'] roles is to make sure that the research has that commercial perspective, and is relevant, and therefore dramtically lowers the barriers to moving the technology into the commercial space."

Intel plans for there to be half a dozen ISTCs at US universities, with each university being the hub for a half-dozen or so other universities participating in the same research area.

The first center will be at Stanford University in California. That effort will focus on research into visual computing, and will involve 30 faculty members, 50 graduate students, and four researchers from Intel Labs.

Working with the Stanford center will be the Universities of California at Berkeley, Davis, and Irvine; the University of Washington, Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton. Intel will supply the Stanford ISTC with $2.5m in funding, plus the four Intel Labs researchers.

The Stanford ISTC will have two principle researchers: professor Pat Hanrahan of the university's Computer Graphics Laboratory – which, by the way, is located in the Gates Computer Science Building – and Jim Hurley, a senior principle engineer at Intel Labs.

Hanrahan explained that in addition to his ISTC's work in visual computing, other centers will focus on content creation, scalable real-time simulation, computer perception of people and places – including the digitization of entire cities – and the creation of graphics systems to support such digitization, "planetary-scale" virtual worlds, and augmented reality.

Rattner also mentioned future ITSCs focused on secure computing and, of course, the cloud.

"Anybody who has been watching what has been happening in education – particularly higher education – over the last few years knows that universities have been hard-hit" by the financial slowdown, said Rattner, saying that it is time for companies such as Intel to step up and support university research.

Rattner also citied President Obama's statement during Tuesday night's State of the Union address that the US is experiencing a "Sputnik moment" – a reference to the launch of that Soviet satellite in 1957 that spurred increased investment in both basic and monetizeable research and education in the US.

Rattner also said that Intel wouldn't ban other entities – either corporate or government – from participating in the ISTC program. "These [research efforts] are not closed. In fact, we are already in discussions with additional industry partners [but] they weren't at the point where we could go public with their participation," he said.

"We would be very interested, whether it be state government or federal government participation," he said. "We're quite open to that."

When asked specifically about AMD or Nvidia joining the effort, Rattner replied: "I think that would very much depend on what their interests are and what their financial support would be." Participation in the ISTCs by government or other corporations would be approved or rejected by each research group's advisory board.

That board will be led by the principle investigators – one from the host university and one from Intel – which underscores that fine line between pure research and eventual marketability of the fruits of the ISTCs.

A cynical – realistic? – mind might surmise that the ISTC program is merely a way for Intel to advance its bottom line. A more open – naive? – mind might believe that Chipzilla is honestly concerned about US competitiveness, a challenge about which more and more top corporate leaders are voicing concerns.

As we said, it's a fine line – but from Rattner's stated point of view, Intel's goal is to be "a seed crystal" to jump-start computing research at this Sputnik moment. ®

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