Director of Intel Research Seattle Focuses on Game-Changing Technologies, Opening New Markets

10/1/08Follow @gthuang

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“Our strongest ties are with the university,” he replies, citing joint projects with faculty in computer science, electrical engineering, public health, and aeronautics and astronautics. Wetherall also points to corporate channels like Intel Capital for funding startup ideas. “We get involved in that a little bit,” he says, adding that he and other Intel researchers help to vet ideas and explore interesting technologies that Intel is looking at.

So where does he think the world of computing is headed? “I really believe the ubiquitous computing line,” he says. “It’s been around a long time, but it’s really starting to happen. Mobile phones are incredibly media-rich and communication-rich. I’ve got to imagine that trend will continue…and we’ll use these devices in weird and wonderful ways.”

Wetherall points to several intriguing lab projects, ranging from personal robotics to long-term care and health monitoring for elders to systems for delivering power wirelessly. (These are demos I’ll get to see in more detail today.) But where he really lights up is wireless networks, and it’s easy to see why. “Wireless is networking you care about. Wireless is where it’s at,” he says. “Wireless systems, mobile systems—we’re looking at the privacy implications…Devices are getting more personal…We’d like to build these systems without the downsides of privacy violation.”

It’s a hot-button topic, given the problem of identity theft and other security issues—and it has immediate consumer applications. Say you go to the airport and are using a Wi-Fi network. With most existing hardware and networking software, someone near you might be able to work out who you are and where you live, just based on the signal your laptop is broadcasting. “We’re working out ways to obscure the private information,” says Wetherall.

For instance, Intel researchers are solving the problem of how to allow only devices located in your house to connect to your home network, using directed antenna technology. At the network level, they’re looking to change the 802.11 wireless protocol to operate without leaking people’s personal information over the network. And at the applications level, the lab is working on some ways to keep the software applications you install on your computer or mobile device from taking your private information and sending it to ad servers, say.

As Wetherall points out, much of the research is focused on what users want. “We study people’s attitudes to privacy,” says Wetherall. “It turns out they’re more concerned about hackers breaking into their machine than the information they’re sending out. Privacy is not a one-size-fits-all…but people care about privacy a lot more when they know about it. We want to reach reasonable levels of privacy…We’d like to create wireless systems that meet fair information practices.”

In closing, I asked the lab director how he views his corporate research experience compared to academia—which is where he will return to in about a year when his Intel term is finished. “It’s really not that different,” he says. “The fun thing for me is, we get to see how corporate research works, and we bring a little of our vision with us…I’ve brought students over here. It’s meant to be set up in a win-win way. It’s also helping Intel be part of the local community…Yes, I turn into a pumpkin in a year. But part of doing this is to build a continuing relationship with Intel, and keep collaborating.”

Wetherall emphasized that he’s just part of the Intel research lab effort. “We’re just one cog in the overall research portfolio…We want to attract top talent that’s interested in both academia and corporate research.” Ultimately, he says, the lab’s progress in pushing the state of the art” comes from the passion of researchers.”

I’ll be checking out that passion, and what it means to Intel, firsthand this afternoon at the lab’s open house. Stay tuned…

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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