Israel isn’t just about small startup companies, it’s also home to some of the most important research and development labs for the biggest of multinationals. All of the titans – Microsoft, Google, IBM and soon, Apple – have such operations in the country, with Intel being the biggest. The chip maker is the country’s largest technology employer, with 8,500 employees.
Nearly half of those are based in Haifa, an hour north of Tel Aviv, where work is being done on the system-on-a-chip product that Intel will release in 2015. The Israeli operations, established in 1974, have supplied some of Intel’s most important products, including the Pentium, Centrino and Core Duo lines of chips. Work is now underway on Cedarview and Cloverview, the technologies found in many new netbooks and Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 tablets.
Oded Agam, head of vertical solutions strategic planning, explained that it’s the Israeli lab’s job to anticipate what technologies are going to be needed in the future. The Sandy Bridge chip architecture, for example, was created in 2005 – before YouTube – in anticipation of the explosion of online video. Clearly, they bet correctly.
So what’s coming up? Well, perceptual computing for one. We may know it now as motion gaming – think the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect (also invented by an Israeli company, PrimeSense) – but it will soon play a much bigger role in the world at large, according to Intel. Natural user interfaces are going to be huge and will start augmenting human capabilities in ways we have yet to imagine, Agam says.
Things got more fun when Agam talks about the future a little further down the line. He believes – as do I – in futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity, where humans and machines will merge. Kurzweil, whose new book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed comes out next month, believes this will start to happen around 2045. Agam isn’t sure he agrees with the timeline, but he does think that’s where we’re heading:
“Today we have these things [phones] and we don’t have to remember anybody’s phone numbers. We don’t have to think about how to get somewhere because we have a GPS to tell us. These things will continue to happen and we’ll have more and more computing capabilities doing things we used to do ourselves.”
“We’ll be freed up from these things and then it becomes a psychological question: what happens to our brain cells when they no longer have to remember phone numbers? Do they just die or do they create new capabilities that allow us to do things we weren’t able to do before. We think the latter is obviously what’s going to happen.”
“Eventually – and I don’t know if Kurzweil is right with his time frame of around 2045 – but the direction is going there. Humans will be in machines and vice versa. You can call it immortality, but that’s a concept that’s going to change in our minds. We can see some of the very early signs of it already. If your Facebook page continues to operate after you die, in some sense you are immortal. These kinds of things will continue to become bigger and bigger.”
“Again, I’m dreaming here and it’s science-fiction and I’m not saying Intel is doing this, but eventually we’re going to have good enough robots with good enough artificial intelligence that we’ll be able to implant all of a human’s memories [in it]. The robot will be able to continue living even though the human being won’t actually be there, but the spirit and the sense of the human being will continue to live in the robot.”
“Another possible example is that we’ll have all kinds of nano-machines travelling within us, enhancing our capabilities, and they’ll be able to repair us, like a repair shop that will happen inside our blood cells and increase our life span. I don’t know if we’ll reach actual biological immortality, but conceptually the fact that humans and machines will start to have the same capabilities, I think eventually will happen.”