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Get Ready For the Shape-Shifting Robots

8/22/2008 4:43 AM

Intel is getting all Blade Runner on us. Actually, no — more like Terminator 2.

The chip colossus put CTO Justin Rattner on stage yesterday at its fall developer’s conference in San Francisco to give a "Big Thinker" talk, which tech companies do basically to show off how much money they’re committing to R&D.

Now, Rattner was thinking wayyyyyyy outside the box. I’ll let the company’s press release explain: Intel CTO Says Gap Between Humans, Machines Will Close by 2050.

He presented three key predictions:

* Wireless power: Intel researchers have been working on a Wireless Resonant Energy Link (WREL), based on principles proposed by MIT physicists, which would be able to power mobile gadgets without needing a plug or wire of any kind.

* Programmable matter: Intel is investigating applications for "millions of tiny micro-robots, called catoms" to build "shape-shifting materials." For example, Rattner said, this technology could make it possible for a device to change physical form to suit the specific way you are using it — so a mobile PC could be tiny when in a pocket, change to the shape of an earpiece when used as a mobile phone, and be large and flat with a keyboard for browsing the Internet or watching a movie.

* Robots as intelligent as humans: Here’s the prognostication with the most potential to induce unease — Intel sees a future of sentient machines. Rattner demonstrated a "complete autonomous mobile manipulation robot" that can recognize faces and interpret and execute commands like "please clean this mess" using artificial intelligence. "Machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason, in the not-so-distant future," he told the IDF attendees.

Let’s see. Human-like intelligence, cordless recharging, and the ability to morph into different forms?

That sounds exactly like the dread T-1000, the liquid-metal assassination-bot from 1991’s Terminator 2.

I’m kind of joking, but some of all of this is a bit scary. (Faulkner: "… that blind chancy darkness which we call the future.")

Of course, there will be benign and probably even utterly useful ways to employ these technologies, if and when they do become viable commercially.

However, I wouldn’t want to test the version 1.0 model of the shape-shifting cellphone/computer/TV. What if this thingy is in your pocket and it suddenly turns into a blender? And just think of the trouble getting that through airport security.

One of the killer apps for highly intelligent machines? Y’know: sexbots. Or, more tactfully, maybe call them "computerized companions." In which case, another real visionary in this field may be Nancy Oliver, the screenwriter of the critical hit Lars and the Real Girl.

September