Let's talk about the future

16 Oct 2008

Recently I experienced a true geek moment when I saw a keynote presentation from Intel CTO Justin Rattner at the annual Intel Developer Forum. Rattner's theme was a daring one - rather than simply look back at 40 years of Intel history, he also gave us a glimpse 40 years ahead to the future.

To hear Rattner tell it, that future includes wireless power technology that will allow you to keep your devices charged without plugging it in. The same devices will be able to change shape based on the application -- a phone, a headset, a TV remote. And you'll be able to move around in Second Life using only the power of your mind. Oh, and by 2050, if not sooner, Rattner said, 'Machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason.'

Now THAT is a keynote.

I've remarked elsewhere that every CTO should give keynotes like that. But I understand why so many of them don't. They work for businesses, and in the business world, crystal balls are dangerous things. They affect share prices and venture capital and make companies do outrageously foolish things - like, oh, spend billions on 3G spectrum licenses, or projects like Iridium. What sensible CTO wants that kind of responsibility heaped on his/her shoulders‾ Even worse, who wants to be around in ten years when their projections of the future turn out to be inaccurate‾

There's also the competition angle to consider. Many tech companies don't like to talk in public about the kind of stuff they get up to in their R&D labs because they don't want The Competitor to steal their big idea. That's also understandable, but I can't tell you how many times I have endured the frustration of being invited for a peek at the latest R&D shenanigans of company X, only to be presented with an NDA form at the door.

Off the leash

At the same time, I've noticed that one of the most common remarks I hear at trade shows these days is: 'I've already seen this. Why don't they talk about something new‾' The reason, of course, is that the majority of presentations you get at conferences are dictated by the company's marketing department, and they tend to evolve as the company's relevant product line evolves, and stay rigorously on-message in line with the company's current positioning.
So it's great to see Intel let their CTO off the leash (if he was ever on one - Intel has never been too shy about its ideas on future tech) and look well beyond the fringe of the corporate comfort zone for a little future-gazing. Every CTO should be so lucky - not just in terms of livening up the trade shows, but in terms of inspiring the rest of the industry with new ideas. So what if you don't have a prototype of a nano-powered self-assembling iPhone that can actually teleport you to work and back‾ It's enough to know you've got a team working on it, and that they're getting 'promising' results.

True, people in this business want to hear about practical technologies that will make them real money. But they also want a taste of what's coming next - not just the next generation of 3G, Wi-Fi or whatever, but ideas they haven't heard before.

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