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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Would Machines Ever Overtake Humans?

Intel predicts that big changes are ahead in social interactions, robotics and improvements in computer's ability to sense the real world; machines might catch up with human reasoning capabilities by the year 2050.
Future is like a bend in the road, you never know what is ahead. However, you can always predict about future when it comes to technologies. That is something what Justin Rattner, chief technology officer, Intel Corporation, tried to do during the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. He gave us a glimpse of how technology will bring man and machine much closer together by 2050.

In terms of technology 40 years is a long period, much will happen in the next 40 years. And it's quite difficult to peep into the future. But Intel is one of those companies that are shaping the future, so what does Rattner think of future? "The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago," Rattner said.

The first exciting demonstration that he made was related to wireless power transmission. Rattner demonstrated powering a 60-watt light bulb without the use of a plug or wire of any kind, which is more than is needed for a typical laptop. The demonstration was based on principles proposed by MIT physicists; Intel researchers have been working on a Wireless Resonant Energy Link (WREL).

The magic of WREL is that it promises to deliver wireless power safely and efficiently. The technology relies on strongly coupled resonators, a principle similar to the way a trained singer can shatter a glass using her voice. At the receiving resonator's natural frequency, energy is absorbed efficiently, just as a glass absorbs acoustic energy at its natural frequency. With this technology enabled in a laptop, for example, batteries could be recharged when the laptop gets within several feet of the transmit resonator. Many engineering challenges remain, but the company's researchers hope to find a way to cut the last cord in mobile devices and someday enable wireless power in Intel-based platforms.

Coming back to the point of reducing gap between humans and machines, Rattner demonstrated two working personal robot prototypes developed at Intel's research labs. One of the demonstrations showed electric field pre-touch that has been built into a robot hand. The technique is a novel sensing modality used by fish but not humans, so they can 'feel' objects before they even touch them. The other demonstration was a complete autonomous mobile manipulation robot that can recognize faces and interpret and execute commands as generic as 'please clean this mess' using motion planning, manipulation, perception and artificial intelligence.

Rattner said he believes more innovation will emerge to make human and machine interaction more robust. Randy Breen, chief product officer, Emotiv Systems, joined Rattner onstage to demonstrate the company's EPOC headset. The Emotiv EPOC identifies brainwave patterns, processes them in real time and tells a game what conscious or non-conscious thoughts the user has had, like facial expressions, conscious actions or emotions. A user with the headset could think about smiling or lifting an object, and an avatar in a game would execute it. EPOC can currently identify more than 30 different 'detections' through the 16 sensors on the headset.

Intel researchers are also investigating how millions of tiny micro-robots, called catoms, could build shape-shifting materials. If used to replace the case, display and keyboard of a computing device, this technology could make it possible for a device to change physical form in order to suit the specific way you are using it. A mobile computer, for example, could be tiny when in a pocket, change to the shape of an ear piece when used as a mobile phone, and be large and flat with a keyboard for browsing the Internet or watching a movie.

"There is speculation that we may be approaching an inflection point where the rate of technology advancements is accelerating at an exponential rate, and machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason, in the not so distant future," said Rattner.

So, we may expect some robots, giving keynotes at Intel's Developer Forum, some 50 years from now; much to the delight of Isaac Asimov!

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