Who wants a 'robot companion'? Look no further than Intel Labs
Sci-fi predicts the future, says Chipzilla CTO
Interview Can you imagine IBM Research ever developing a social robot companion? Intel CTO Justin Rattner can’t, but he’s happy for his own researchers to build one – and for the technology to find its way into the market. Eventually.
Ask most techies of a certain age how a company should carry out research and development and they will likely cite Bell Labs, or one of its clones such as Xerox Parc or IBM Research.
The problem is, says Rattner, while this traditional model continues to shape perceptions of how to run research, it is pretty much dead in the water. Indeed, as Rattner pointed out in a speech at Intel’s Open Innovation 2.0 event in Dublin recently, it’s debatable whether it was ever really suited for taking “inventions” and turning them into “innovations” - or, put another way, into something people will buy and use.
“Bell Labs’ model was basically to do academic research without the burdens of having to teach or having to convince your government masters that you had worthy research to do,” Rattner told The Register in a conversation after his speech.
This is fine as far as it went, Rattner argues, but it also meant that while Bell Labs laid the groundwork for the point contact transistor, Ma Bell failed to do anything with it. While William Shockley jumped ship to set up his own operation to further transistor research, he built it in the image of Bell Labs.
It took another set of defectors to set up Fairchild Semiconductor before the transistor started resembling anything that could form the building blocks on an integrated circuit. The rest is (Intel) history.
R&D: Evolve or die
Things started to change in the 90s, even as the rapidly fattening Microsoft was scaling up its own Microsoft Research operation, picking up refugees from academia as well as Xerox, DEC, et al. As Rattner says, boards were asking CEOs: “Are you getting value out of your research organisation, or would it make sense to just shut the thing down?”
“We had the same pressure at Intel. There’d been a research organisation separate from the labs associated with the chip technology for many years, but it wasn’t held in very high esteem and was generally thought of as an ivory tower.”
“It was the middle of the decade and we were thinking about how we should structure research at Intel so that … the lab's impact would be seen as the critical - if not the primary - engine for innovation in the company. And we think we succeeded in doing that.”
At IBM, says Rattner, Lou Gerstner handed the research purse strings to the product units, leaving researchers touting for budgets.
As for Intel, “The original metric that [former CEO Paul] Otellini established was ‘OK, how many technologies are moving out of the labs and moving into the product section’. It’s actually part of the executive incentive program. It had to be.”
“And then he [Otellini] said, ‘you can transfer these technologies, but I want to know that these technologies are going to be in those products.”
“That was when he really raised the bar - but it was the right thing to do because it made everybody focus: 'this is not just about getting the technology from A to B, this is about getting the technology to the market.'”
This very process of drawing a direct line between pure research and products in the market could be seen as the fast route to underinvestment in R&D which many US firms, and Universities, are accused of these days. Scientists’ drive to do blue sky research is supposedly being trumped by short-termism, and shareholders with a time horizon of a quarter at the most.
Bringing research to market
Rattner, unsurprisingly, would say this is not the case at Intel, and points out that Labs works ahead of product group demands - to the extent of funding its own “ventures” to get technology off the starting blocks, where necessary. There are three of these Lab Ventures in progress at the moment, Rattner says, though the only one which he will discuss in public is Silicon Photonics.
“That’s a lab venture and it basically was created to take roughly a decade’s worth of research in silicon photonics and bring it to market.”
According to Rattner, when Labs went to Intel’s network business and started talking up the prospect of 100Gbps, the response was, “you know guys, that’s all great stuff, but there’s no need right now, we’re just trying to do 40Gbps...”
Rattner explains: “When it costs less than 4x the price of the current technology but gives you 10x the performance, the market shifts and this is what delayed 10Gbps. It took so long they just couldn’t get the cost to 4x what 1Gbps technology was at.”
From a product point of view, the numbers didn’t add up for silicon photonics yet. While there was undoubtedly demand from HPC volumes that would have been too low justify a new business, says Rattner.
“But you know, as we were out talking to the big data centre customers, they were telling us they’re going to need this stuff much sooner and they were going to need it in very high volumes.”
So, Rattner’s team began showing potential customers 50Gbps laboratory technology.
“We said, if we could figure out how to manufacture it in higher volume, would you buy this stuff? And they were very encouraging. And in fact as part of getting funding [from Intel’s venture board] we had to pull in two MOUs to our venture board [saying] if you can do this, we’re ready to buy it. And that was the basis for starting the business
The photonics technology was demo’d at IDF Beijing recently, and Rattner says Intel has engineering samples, was building up yields, and “We’ll be in the market within the year.”
“From time to time to a small number of technologies come more out of the exploratory side of our research that either don’t have a home or it’s too early for them to have a home and they’re obvious candidates for venturing.”
The drive to productise Silicon Photonics has thrown off other developments, he adds.
“We could spend the next hour just talking about testing,” says Rattner. We don’t, but he does raise a good question:
“I mean, how do you test an optical integrated circuit - it turns out you can’t buy standard testers so we had to invent our own.”
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.”
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?" ®