A new chip off the old block

A new chip off the old block

What do opera singers and fish have in common?

What do opera singers and fish have in common? If you guessed Intel, you'd be right. If you didn't, you might be surprised to learn that sopranos and snapper are sources of inspiration for the chip maker's $US6 billion ($6.8 billion) R&D team as it searches for answers to some of the computer industry's more vexing concerns.

Take, for example, the tangle of cables behind most desks and home entertainment units. Using the same principles at work when a singer shatters a glass with her voice, Intel this past week demonstrated new technology that allowed it to illuminate a 60-watt light bulb without a power cord.

It also trotted out a working, prototype robot that drew on the same techniques fish use to sense objects to create an automaton with hands that can feel.

They're just two of the numerous projects Intel scientists are working on this year and the company's chief technology officer, Justin Rattner, said they were part of a quickening research and development curve.

"The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago," Mr Rattner said as he showcased current and future technologies at Intel's annual developer conference in San Francisco. "There is speculation that we may be approaching an inflection point where the rate of technology advancement is accelerating at an exponential rate, and machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason in the not-too-distant future."

Machines or, more specifically, micro-robots known as catoms, could also one day create shape-shifting devices that might fold themselves up to fit in a pocket but then expand into a laptop with a full-sized keyboard.

If that sounds too much like science fiction, Intel's demonstrations over the week included fabrication techniques that gave it the ability to create the tiny silicon building blocks needed to make catoms less than a millimetre wide.

That's just the first step and the development roadmap presented by Intel stretches to 2050. But technologies that, at the least, banish the clutter of power cables are closer than many think.

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