SAN JOSE, Calif. Research under way at Intel Corp. will result in new applications, new infrastructure and new business opportunities in the 21st century, including major inroads in health care services, said the company's chief technology officer, Patrick Gelsinger, in a keynote Friday (Feb. 21) at the Intel Developer Forum.
"I want to describe to you the microconvergence of sensor nets, computers and wireless communication technologies, that will result in the macroconvergence of context-aware, aging-in-place and precision-biological technologies in the future," said Gelsinger.
Microconvergence is essentially the connection of two or more technologies to create a new product or capability, Gelsinger said. For instance, the combination of an engine and a wagon created the automobile, and its macroconvergence created the interstate highway system, the trucking business, car rentals, and a new social lifestyle in subsequent decades, he said.
A similar scenario will roll out over the 21st century when Intel marries sensor networks to wireless computer and communications networks, Gelsinger said. For instance, wireless devices today are just becoming positional-sensitive. That microconvergence will result in context-aware services that will be able to pin-point the location of the closest parking space or Chinese restaurant, he said. Likewise, sensor nets monitoring the elderly will enable aging-in-place that is, the ability of many elderly to stay at home instead of residing at an institution.
"In manufacturing, the microconvergence will have us putting all the capabilities of sensor networks, high-speed computers and wireless communications into single-chip solutions. By 2018 we will be processing 450-mm wafers with 14-nanometer design rules and will be able to put short-range high bandwidth SRHB software radios on any chip we make. Our context-aware paradigm combined with our Ironsides software-radio platform will then enable Intel to make microconvergence chips with silicon radios that are both flexible and dynamically reconfigurable. We think SRHB will be Bluetooth's on-chip replacement, because it will be lower power, wider bandwidth and less costly," said Gelsinger.
With the microconvergence of sensor networks with computers and wireless communication into single integrated devices, Intel predicts a macroconvergence that will create a whole new echelon of business opportunities wrought from the "context-aware" capabilities of microconvergence devices.
Two area that Gelsinger identified as long-term growth areas of macroconvergence both involve the rising cost of health care to an aging population. That care is currently consuming an inordinate amount of the elderly's income and threatens to bankrupt Medicare and other service providers if cost trends continue unabated. The demographics of the aging U.S. population are also striking. By 2010, 50 percent of U.S. households will be caring for an elderly family member, and by 2050 nearly 50 percent of the population will be over 55.
The microconvergence of sensors and computers and wireless-communications will help address these issues, Gelsinger said, enabling a whole new set of technologies called "proactive" health care.
At this point, Gelsinger introduced Eric Dishman, manager of Intel's proactive health research lab and the chairman of the Intel Research Council Health Subcommittee, a group of 15 social scientists employed by Intel to evaluate future health care needs.
"We think that health care costs can be greatly reduced by enabling the elderly to stay at home instead of moving into an institution," said Dishman.
On stage, Dishman used Gelsinger as a guinea pig in a mock-up of an elderly person's home. Five video cameras pumped out 70 bits per second of video data to track Gelsinger's movement from "room-to-room," logging his various activities, such as cooking on the stove, and interrupted his TV program to remind him that it was time to take his medication.
"These seem like simple things, and they are usually, but in the future there won't be enough people to care for the elderly so it is important that we get computers to help them instead," Dishman said. "Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to program computers to tell the difference between routine and unusual activities that might indicate problems. For instance, if an elderly person stands in front of the stove for an hour longer than usual, you don't know if they are having a hard time remembering how to work the stove, or whether they just picked an elaborate dish to cook today."
After setting up a demonstration for the Alzheimer Association, in which sensors plus computers and wireless communication were able to alert care providers at unusual activities that could indicate the early stages of dementia, the Alzheimer Association proposed a pilot study. Currently, this new research effort, just getting under way, will focus on early detection of dementia, but promises to expand to provide all sorts of assistance to the emerging aging-in-place businesses.
"This new research effort with the Alzheimer Association was prompted when we gave them a demo," Dishman said. "They became very excited about being able to detect the signs of dementia much earlier than we can today."
By detecting the early signs of dementia, and dealing with the specific problems that result, Intel hopes to foster a macroconvergence that enables people to stay in their homes for extended periods of time well beyond the time that current medical practitioners recommend institutionalization.
"If we begin to notice changes in habits, we can prompt people with questions that enable them to stay at home," Dishman said. "Today, when you enter an Alzheimer's patient's home you will find very basic notes posted everywhere around the house. On the bathroom mirror you might find 'Start the water before putting shaving cream on,' or 'Take a bath, not a shower,' but these are the kinds of reminders a computer could more effectively provide verbally."
One of the biggest single costs in medicine today relates to patients' non-compliance with their medical treatment plans, Dishman said. By monitoring such activity as whether patients are taking their medicine and meeting their exercises needs, simple computer prompts could help them succeed at home. They could also provide reports to care providers that verify compliance and possibly indicate minor problems before they become major or life-threatening.
Next month Intel will begin a series of home trials of its aging-in-place technologies, the company announced at IDF. By using the model of the drug industry, Intel hopes to provide quantified evidence to Medicare and other insurance providers that in-home monitoring of elderly not only reduces the cost of medical care but also improves the quality of patients' lives.
Intel also revealed for the first time at IDF the inner workings of its "precision biology" lab headed by Intel's Andy Berlin. Intel disclosed how its precision biology research was combining nanotechnology microfluidics with chemistry and biology to create handheld devices that make medical scans on the molecular scale.
"In the future, we want to be able to look at DNA or other proteins and use microfluidics to analyze them on-chip," Gelsinger said. "We want to be able to make inferences about cell characteristics right on the spot, which will be a very powerful method of early disease detection."
Today's cell analysis techniques require literally thousands of DNA strands and as a result can only offer statistical inferences based on the overall characteristics of these very large quanta, Gelsinger said. But if microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and microfluidics can be used instead, individual strands of DNA and proteins can be analyzed, he said.
"We want to be able to analyze single molecules, which we can do because our lithographic scale is smaller than a single DNA or protein molecule. So now we want to not only analyze single molecules, but we can start ripping apart that single molecule and look at individual cells that's where the early signs are hidden," said Gelsinger.