Intel-sponsored sci-fi searches for the future

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By Yeung /  18 Aug 2011 , 07:35

According to science fiction published earlier this year by Intel, the Silicon Valley computer chip maker, here’s what tomorrow could bring: Cars that drive themselves at 150 kilometers per hour, robot-butlers that sense your mood, mobile phones implanted into your ear, and wristwatches that monitor your stress level.

A technology giant serving as a patron of the literary arts? It may sound unlikely, but as the company’s “resident futurist” explains it, there’s a pretty practical reason for it.

“When we design the chips that go into your television, your computer, your phone, we need to do it about five to 10 years in advance so what that means is we need to have an understanding of what people will want to do with those devices five to 10 years before those things actually come out,” Intel futurist Brian David Johnson said in a video about his work.

But Johnson added his job isn’t about predicting the future. Instead, he said, he’s engaged in “future casting,” a process for “developing a vision for the future.” “It involves social science research, tech research, global trends, and things like science fiction,” Johnson said.

The Tomorrow Project

The stories that emerged from the anthology that Intel published in April range from a piece that explores how technology has driven consumerism, to a love story involving computer-assisted telepathy. AFP

Intel isn’t the only tech company to employ a futurist, and outfits like The Institute for the Future is comprised of entire staffs who use anthropology, sociology, and philosophy to “make reasonable assumptions about what potential futures might look like,” as Mathias Crawford of the Institute for the Future wrote in Good magazine.Once you get beyond some of the futuristic-geek-marketing mumbo jumbo, it’s undeniably fascinating stuff.

For example, most futurists agree that science fiction offers a space venue for exploring technological advancements. Intel decided to make it an official part of its research efforts by launchingThe Tomorrow Project, which asksauthors to imagine how technology could be incorporated into everyday life in the next decade.

Intel then hired four writers to author futuristic stories inspired by the technology that the company was research and developing. The final product was published in book form in April, and it’s also free to download.

A second anthology of Intel-published sci-fi, produced in conjunction with the University of Washington, will be released in October (although writers weren’t paid this time around).

Intel Futurist Johnson uses the published stories “as illustrations for the future casting work,” Connie Brown, a spokesperson for Intel told Firstpost. “Engineers and managers reference them.”

The stories can even serve as prototypes for someprojects, where engineers and marketers will “use those [stories] and create those experiences,” Brown wrote in an email.

“It’s an incredibly useful technique for those of us who grew up watching Star Trek, or still do,” Jack Weast, an Intel engineer, told Bloomberg.

A taste of the future

Once you get beyond some of the futuristic-geek-marketing mumbo jumbo, it's undeniably fascinating stuff. AFP

The stories that emerged from the anthology that Intel published in April range from a piece that explores how technology has driven consumerism, to a love story involving computer-assisted telepathy.

Though these works may not win any fiction-writing awards, they advance some intriguing ideas.

British author Ray Hammond contributed a story entitled “The Mercy Dash,” which explores how technologies could assist a family dealing with an unexpected medical crisis.

The short story opens just as a character named Helene Guenier fractures three vertebrae while jet skiing in the French Riviera on her honeymoon following a second marriage. Her daughter, Sophie, and son-in-law, Billy, live in Germany, and the couple jumps into Speedy, an auto-piloted car, to race to see Helene a French hospital 650 km away. Along the way, Billy asks his car and his virtual assistant-which is implanted into his ear and takes verbal commands-to seek out the fastest routes using real-time traffic information.

Sophie, a medical student, is also able to instantaneously receive and project her mother’s medical records onto the windshield of their car; she then transfers the data to a 3-D modeler so she can try to gauge the extent of the damage to her mother’s spine. When Sophie flies off the handle because she’s worried about her mother, Billy’s virtual assistant gauges the emotions in the room, and offers a few encouraging words.

Hammond wrote the piece after looking at the work that Intel was doing on personal robotics, and cars that are connected to the internet and that run on powerful computers.

It’s all the wonderful, fantastical stuff that you’d expect from science fiction. Except that some if it, thanks to futurists, might actually become a reality.


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