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Intel Takes 'Proactive' Approach to R&D

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The man in charge of future technologies at Intel is quite concerned about what computer chips are thinking five seconds from now.

CTO Pat Gelsinger said the chipmaking giant is working on smart silicon that anticipates a users' needs and recommends options instead of just reacting to those needs.

The process includes computational nanovision analysis, sensor networks, probabilistic networks, Bayesian networks, and ethnographic research. The research also takes advantage of the Planet Lab project, a distributed system of 65 sites that is comprised of 160 researchers working to enhance grid technologies, peer-to-peer networking, and Web services.

"The key theme of our work in the labs is proactive computing and establishing the next core of technologies that will support that," Gelsinger said in a presentation for press and analysts Wednesday. "We started with the batch-computing era of large mainframes. That led to the current era of interactive computing where you have the Internet. Now Intel is helping the industry move to the proactive computing era... one where statistics will affect everything."

The project is just one of several hundred that the company is pursuing with its $4.8 billion budget this year. The company currently has no less than 20 different research labs and "lablets" that are run by solely Intel or in concert with universities on three continents.

"These are DARPA-like projects," Gelsinger said. "We are very interested in taking the landscape of silicon and expanding it into the businesses."

Another main focus of Gelsinger's team is processor architectures, whose designs are coming up against a hard wall of physics. The company is working quickly to address the problems of leaky transistors by building more power-efficient chips.

"Power efficiency is key at every level of the stack," Gelsinger told internetnews.com. "It is the limiter and constraint in our industry. But the interaction of circuit body biasing depends on how the circuits are used. Sometimes, making it faster or slower is beneficial. For example, I can make them fast and leaky and other sides slower and more stable. It's a balance."

Intel is currently looking at alternatives to copper interconnects to solve the problem. The chipmaker's engineers are testing silicon photonics, which, like phone lines, move massive amounts of data over fiber optical cables.

"Essentially what you end up with is a fiber coming out of a microprocessor to increase the speed, lower the cost and work in a more parallel and distributed model," Gelsinger said.

The CTO also said more and more of his conversations with software vendors include talk of highly threaded computing and the possibilities that may transpire when they can fully take advantage of thread-level parallelism.

Gelsinger also predicted that by 2006, nearly every Intel chip on the market would have some underlying technology with some layer of security built into it.