Pre-touch "gives robotic hands the ability to sense an object before it touches it," said Rattner. "This is the kind of sense that fish have: Sharks can do it and eels can do it, but if we ever had it as humans we've long since lost that capability."
A demonstration here showed a robotic hand with a field coil and a sensor attached to each finger. When a finger came close to an object, it sensed a change in the field corresponding to a particular object. Intel's robot acted as a restaurant busboy, using pretouch technology to apply a force appropriate to collecting glasses and stacking them.
"Being able to grip is a fundamental ability for humans, so our question becomes, 'Can we imbue machines with a comparable capability?'" said Rattner. "We may see new types of sensor modalities, such as pretouch, coming into widespread use as a result of our attempt to mimic human capabilities."
Intel also demonstrated how energy might be beamed wirelessly to power devices using antennas tuned to a resonant frequency to transmit power to illuminate a 60-watt light bulb. Rattner claimed Intel's Wireless Resonant Energy Link achieved 70-percent efficiency in a demonstration of wireless power transfer over two feet.
"At 70-percent efficiency, we could wirelessly recharge all kinds of electronic devices -- even laptops -- just by building coils into work surfaces, and then bringing your laptop or other battery powered device into proximity to recharge it."
Rattner also predicted that cognitive radios would become essential for dividing up crowded frequency spectrum as the number of wireless devices multiplies. He said silicon photonics would soon enable ultawide bandwidth communications both on-chip and off. Intel is focusing its photonics efforts on developing silicon waveguides for optical communications powered by indium phosphide lasers.
Finally, Rattner predicted, there's "programmable matter."
"What if we could build nanoscale devices with a little bit of intelligence and mobility that could assemble themselves into arbitrary shapes? Imagine a future printing device that you fill up with programmable matter, push the button and out comes a complete 3-D object capable of movement, color [change], luminescence," he asked.
Intel researchers have fabricated identical millimeter-sized robots called "catoms," each capable of locomotion and attaching to other catoms. In a demonstration, a researcher commanded catoms to assemble into the shape of a car. Each catom autonomously moved to take its place. After forming into a car, the researcher picked up the assembled car and reshaped it.
"We are currently scaling down the catoms to the micro-scale, but the idea for the next 40 years is to reduce them down to the nanoscale where you won't be able to discern individual catoms," said Rattner. The next hurdle will be programming catoms. "What would be their instruction set? How would it be used to let them assemble themselves into the desired shape? Those are the questions that have yet to be answered," Rattner said.