Photos: Intel's march of the Nanobots
The day before the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) starts, the international press is traditionally given a research and development briefing. This time, the briefing included a showcase of new technologies fresh from the labs, in some cases still years from any commercial deployment — if, indeed, they'll ever make it.
Those ideas that do survive the process will lapse back into secrecy as they get closer to the market, while those that don't will quietly disappear or be absorbed into other projects. Either way, this is the only time this mix of ideas is on display, so make the most of this rare look behind the scenes.
The March Of The Nanobots
One of science fiction's favourite themes is that of an army of robots too small to see. Working on a cellular or atomic scale, these intelligent 'nanobots' are designed to help us create whatever we like from nature's most basic building blocks — with an effectively unlimited range of tasks in medicine, industry, home and work. Intel has started work on the wide range of inventions that need to be brought together to make this work, such as the software needed to control them and ways for silicon to configure itself into a three-dimensional microscopic platform.
The skeletal cubes to the right of the picture are a demonstration of how static forces can be used to manipulate and align objects, while the round devices in the centre that look something like a stack of poker chips are the prototype robots themselves.
Nanobots up close
During development, the prototypes need to be big enough to see and work on — and in any case, the technologies from which they're built are not yet ready to shrink to anything approaching the final size. Made from a teflon body, this model has studs distributed around the sides where it can exert carefully controlled magnetic forces, and sensors around the rim at the top.
Two nanobots in action
With power coming in from the cables at the top, these nanobots sense each others' presence and bring themselves together using electromagnetic force. Once coupled, they can co-operate by moving around each other to shuffle off in any direction — robots capable of deciding on a goal and taking action towards it, despite having no moving parts.
Once enough work has been done on the larger robots, the ideas will be transferred onto grains of silicon such as these here. Although too small to see, the silicon balls are made of panels that can contain electronic circuits and nanoscopic mechanisms, with hinges etched into them so that they can fold into a three-dimensional shape.
Campaign of tera
As part of Intel's move towards what it call 'tera computing' — terahertz processors working with terabytes of memory and terabit communications — the company needs to find ways to make chips talk together faster than before. This demonstration system was passing data between the two chips at the top of the board at 20 gigabytes per second along ordinary copper traces, visible as the straight lines connecting the devices. This work by using very tiny signals — as little as ten millivolts when they reach their destination — that don't interfere with each other, and the adoption of ideas that have been temporarily unfashionable in the world of very high-speed interconnections, such as separate clock signals and parallel connections.
CPU magic via FPGA
One of the problems of developing new platforms is the complex interdependency between hardware, software and operating systems. It's easy to tweak software, but it's difficult and expensive to try out new ideas in a processor without going through a full production cycle. This stack of boards is one way around this — it contains a field programmable gate array (FPGA) that can be configured nearly instantly to look like a fully functional x86 processor capable of running Windows or any other Intel-compatible operating system. Changes to the processor can be made as swiftly and conveniently as they can to software, letting Intel's engineers try out new ideas practically instantly.
The Intel Developer Forum wouldn't be the same without at least one bench groaning under the weight of enough test equipment to debug the Tardis. Here is this year's top contender — and, as usual, it's in aid of a circuit that when finished will be most important for very portable systems. Intel is investigating how to make efficient power supplies that convert the single variable voltage that comes from a battery to the range of highly stable outputs that portable electronics requires.
Although such ideas are highly developed already, they become very inefficient at low power, typically wasting up to a third of the energy they demand just to perform the conversion process. Intel is working on power supplies that reconfigure themselves to operate with around ninety percent efficiency no matter how little or how much power is required — here seen as the small boards lost under the festoon of test leads.
From nanobot to Nan's bots
This might look like a scattering of things with which to make the tea — and it is. Intel is working on ways to monitor such everyday items and how they're used, with the idea that a computer can spot subtle changes in the daily routine and diagnose cognitive problems in the elderly long before they become overwhelming. As well as helping medical staff and care providers effectively target the help required, the system can also work with the people it's looking after, providing reminders and suggestions that should help them stay independent and living as they wish at home for much longer than before.