Page last updated at 07:39 GMT, Saturday, 23 August 2008 08:39 UK

The dawn of intelligent machines

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco

Robots of the future have to be more in tune with humans said Intel

The idea may scare some, but Intel predicts that by 2050 machines could surpass the peak of human intelligence.

So predicted Justin Rattner, chief technology officer at the chip maker, in a presentation at the Intel Developer Forum which examined how technology is expected to bridge the gap between man and machine.

The vision included sensitive robots and shape-shifting materials.

"There is no question that one of the most likely things that will happen in the next 40 years is that machine and human intelligence will come much closer together," Mr Rattner told the BBC.

"The ability of humans to communicate with machines and for machines to communicate with humans will get so much better."

He said: "There is speculation that we may be approaching an inflection point where the rate of technology advancements is accelerating at an exponential rate, and machines could even overtake humans in their ability to reason, in the not so distant future."

Mr Rattner's keynote speech included a video presentation from inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil who talked about the impending day when humans create a machine smarter than they are - a moment dubbed "The Singularity".

Mr Kurzweil said: "That machines will be more intelligent than humans is not a question of if or when it will happen. The real question is: What will it take for us to make it happen?"

Overtaking humans

Mr Rattner tried to answer the question by talking about the technological advances going on at Intel.

He said the company was researching social interaction, robotics, increases in wireless communication, signalling and better sensors that help a computer sense the world around it.

intel forum
Sensors in the robot's arm allows it to 'feel' the object without touching it

Mr Rattner also told the audience that the company's research labs are already looking at human-machine interfaces as well as investigating future implications to computing.

"The industry has taken much greater strides than anyone ever imagined 40 years ago.

Intel researchers took to the stage at the IDF to demonstrate some of the projects aimed at moving the world towards "The singularity".

Mr Rattner envisaged robots playing a major part in everyday life and said Intel was working on ways for them to be more personal.

For that to happen, robots had to be more aware of their surroundings, be able to "feel" objects before they even touch them and recognise movement in a dynamic physical world.

Intel's Justin Rattner said the world is edging ever closer to machine intelligence matching our own

Joshua Smith, a principal engineer at Intel's Seattle research lab, showed a robotic arm that could sense an apple placed in front of its claw, grasp the object and then drop it into an outstretched hand.

Improvements to sensors made the feat possible. In an earlier version shown to the BBC the robotic arm used cameras to identify objects.

In another demonstration, Intel revealed its work on programmable matter called catoms. Fully realised these will use millions of tiny micro-robots which are used to build shape shifting materials. The technology could make it possible for a device to actually change physical form in order to suit the way it is being used.

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Jason Campbell, a senior staff scientist, told IDF attendees that if this work is successful then people could one day have a computer that fits easily into a pocket but can also be stretched and shaped into a full-size traditional notebook.

Mr Rattner said, "Progress in the next 100 years won't be like progress in the last 100 years. We are literally watching technology move at an ever increasing pace.

"We're making steady progress to Ray Kurzweil's singularity. Humans and machines are starting to cross the chasm."

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