For decades, measuring progress in semiconductors was easy. Every year the chips got faster and the industry moved forward. Speed matters far less these days. Phones, cars, and other everyday objects are becoming computers, and the chips in them need to run graphics, operate radios, and browse the Web, all while using as little power as possible.
Intel (INTC) has struggled to understand this shift. It excelled in the faster-is-always-better world, but rivals like ARM (ARMH) and Qualcomm (QCOM) have been far better at designing chips geared for consumers’ needs. Users “don’t care about the technology anymore,” says Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at researcher In-Stat. “They care about how they can use it. It’s cultural change that needs to happen” at Intel, says McGregor.
The chipmaker is trying to speed along the change by reaching engineers in a language they understand: science fiction. Last year Intel hired four sci-fi writers to study the company’s latest research projects and produce an anthology, The Tomorrow Project, envisioning how cutting-edge processors might be used in the near future. Published online in February, the book supplements an ongoing series of short stories about artificial intelligence by Brian David Johnson, Intel’s resident futurist. His latest story, The Machinery of Love and Grace, about a grieving space station, was published online in late July. The goal of both projects is to help Intel’s engineers design chips tailored to specific consumer uses with wide market potential.
In one of the stories in The Tomorrow Project, a couple dashes from Paris to the south coast of France to provide an injured relative with a blood transfusion. They travel in a car that navigates and drives itself. Medical information is wirelessly beamed to the vehicle’s dashboard and into mobile phone-like ear studs. In another story, robotic automation has rendered jobs a thing of the past, and one human mulls what to do with his free time. “It’s an incredibly useful technique for those of us who grew up watching Star Trek, or still do,” says Jack Weast, an Intel engineer.
Intel’s sci-fi publishing arm is an extension of its 12-year-old social science division. The division assesses technological trends by sending anthropologists and sociologists to hang out in living rooms, senior care centers, and hospitals. The logic behind the effort: Understand how technology is used and you’re more likely to design chips people will buy. “The world of computing isn’t what it used to be,” says Johnson. “It is my job to get out in front of our tech-nology road map.”
Johnson worked closely with Weast while the engineer’s team designed Intel’s E3100 and E4100 chips, processors for Internet-enabled televisions and set-top boxes. The company started work on the chip specifications five years ago under the assumption that viewers would want to stream movies and shows from the Internet to their TV. Johnson’s research, which included surveys and observation teams, showed that consumers don’t just want to stream videos—they want to browse the whole of the Web on their big screens. In response to the research, Weast’s engineering team redesigned the chips.
That hasn’t exactly led to a home run. Logitech (LOGI) said in April that its Intel-equipped Google (GOOG) TV device, introduced in October, was off to a “slow start.” The price has been slashed by a third, to $99, in the face of weak demand. In Europe, the Intel-based devices have fared better and are selling at a rate of “tens of thousands” a day, according to the company.
Johnson stresses that no number of surveys, observation teams, or sci-fi stories can accurately predict the future. But he says that Intel’s social science efforts are helping to transform the company’s engineering culture, and he plans to release another sci-fi anthology in October. “We no longer design technology just for technology’s sake,” says Weast. “Although we can always go bigger, faster, better, the research that Brian David and his team do is helping us to understand where are the right places to do that.”