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Who wants a 'robot companion'? Look no further than Intel Labs

Sci-fi predicts the future, says Chipzilla CTO

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Lasers + financial muscle = 'unbelievable', and robot bartenders

Once again, Intel’s sheer manufacturing and financial muscle came into play, with Labs taking possession of a load of obsolete 8 inch wafer testing kit. “I mean, we’re Intel, nobody does 8 inch technology anymore, right? All the 8 inch testers we could ever use. So we began to convert them to do optical testing.”

“I think Intel silicon photonics is unique, given what we know amongst all of the people reporting optical photonics technology in that these are truly optical integrated circuits they come on wafers and you can test them at the wafer level. You can test them both electrically and optically but the interesting thing about optical testing is you never contact the wafer.”

“So, instead of a bunch of little probes coming down we actually have lasers that look at these points on each die and pass through them and we detect the light coming through these various circuits - so we’re able to test them optically but we don’t have to touch them to do it.”

“It’s almost unbelievable.”

It’s reassuring to see the CTO of Intel describe his own Labs’ efforts as “unbelievable”. It’s also refreshing to see Intel forcing its researchers to make do and mend - even if we’re talking about fabulously costly testing kit.

Even more reassuring - for a journalist, at least - is Rattner’s openness to turn to the humanities, in the form of anthropologists and science writers, to help guide Intel Labs' other priorities. Some of Intel's neighbours have run into trouble in the past, which could have been avoided if they tempered their “engineers know best”. mindset with a little dose of social science

“It’s a powerful technique,” he says, of “science fiction prototyping”.

Rattner quotes Alan Kay, himself a veteran of many tech firms’ advanced labs: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

“And that suggests that the future is what we make it to be. It’s not like the future is out there to be discovered, that’s it’s already been figured out. It’s our job to define the future, and the role of science fiction prototyping is to examine possible futures and understand their pros and cons and hopefully help us at Intel and people in other organisations understand the range of futures that’s possible.”

Robot bartenders

Then, he says laughing, you get to work inventing the future you want, and the future products you need, “as opposed to the ones we don’t want.”

As with the labs ventures, Rattner is not exactly brimming with examples of how the technique is applied. However, the example he does light on is a cracker.

Four or five years ago, says Rattner, while touring academic labs in the Far East, the focus appeared perplexingly on robotic bar tenders: “Most of the work in the area of personal robotics is focused on, I guess, robots that serve.”

As for Intel, perhaps distressingly, “We were not interested in robot bar tenders – but, you know, we set the science fiction writers off to examine the impact of robots that were largely personal companions.”

They didn't necessarily have to be good at anything, Rattner says, just useful.

The upshot is that Intel is aiming at something beyond earlier examples perhaps such as Sony’s Aibo dog - or even the robots Intel has demonstrated itself at events like IDF.

“The social robots we imagine will...talk and they listen and they carry on a pleasant conversation.”

“When you think about how you might bring robotic technology into the home right now, it’s things scooting around the door picking up the dirt. That’s not terribly compelling, but it’s not hard to imagine, given the state of the technology, having robots that you know that are companions.”

Some might question whether having Intel Inside scrawled across the chest of a “social companion” is more compelling than having it stuck on a robot bartender who also sweeps up after you.

But that’s not really the point. While we’re left pondering exactly what sort of “social robot companions” Intel’s engineers are working up in the lab, Intel will be working out what technology and components it can sell to whoever actually gets into the robo business.

“Experimentally, we will absolutely build them,” Rattner says. “We have to prove that they’re actually worth their batteries … these are intended to better understand the technologies that go into creating such a robot. The experimental ones tell us where we’re strong, where we’re good, and where we need additional work to make these things practical.”

“Over a longer period of time, we’ll definitely want our silicon involved ... this is pretty long range stuff.”

Unsurprisingly, this brings us back full circle on scifi prototyping. “Unlike the total crystal ball sort of research it has gone through a degree of validation by letting the sci-fi writers explore some of the social behavioural issues.”

It’s certainly more a reliable approach than traditional futurology, he argues.

”I mean, you look at Epcot at Disney World. Epcot was Disney imagineering its view of what the city of tomorrow would look like - and as anybody who’s been there would know – gosh, I hope the future doesn’t look like that – I mean, I’d much rather be in London than at Epcot.”

But he's not in either. He's in Dublin, and our time is up. So Rattner moves on to speak with other certified "innovators" while we're left wondering: "Why not have Robot bar tenders?" ®

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