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

On a clear day, David Wetherall can see Mount Rainier from his desk. On a clearer day, he can see the future of Intel. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Wetherall, the director of Intel Research Seattle, has certainly been charged with leading an exploratory research effort for the chip-making giant—blue-sky, “off-roadmap” stuff that won’t be in Intel’s products anytime soon, but is nonetheless vital to the company because it could help create the broader future of computing.

Intel Research Seattle, located three blocks from the University of Washington campus, is one of three Intel labs tied closely to universities around the country—the others are at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The Seattle lab, which opened in 2001, has 20 full-time researchers, with about an equal number of students, interns, and visiting researchers at any given time.

I sat down with Wetherall yesterday as he was doing last-minute preparations for today’s annual lab open house. Wetherall has been director of the Seattle lab since mid-2006. He is also an associate professor of computer science and engineering at UW, and his own research has focused on wireless networks and distributed systems. It’s an unusual model, in that Intel hires its research lab directors for three-year terms, after which they typically go back to academia full-time. (Wetherall is the third director of the Seattle lab.) “The lab has a charter, to bring in new people from the university,” says Wetherall. This helps “invigorate things” and keeps the lab’s research on the “cutting edge.”

As Wetherall explains, it’s a pretty open and forward-looking effort. “We have a lot of joint research, projects where university people work here, and we also fund research at the university. It’s a big way we get things done. There is a joint, open collaborative agreement between Intel and UW. People don’t have to sign an NDA,” says Wetherall. “We’re not focused on an immediate product, we’re focused around opening markets…We’re chartered with doing disruptive research that’s not on the product map. Intel is interested in new computing technologies. We’re trying to invent them, and stay ahead of the game. We’re a small scout organization looking for game-changing technologies.”

The Seattle lab’s research theme is “focused on future computer systems woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Wetherall. It’s the next step in the evolution of computers as they migrate from desktops to mobile devices to embedded devices. “We try to figure out what technologies and usage models work, how to power them, how to provide privacy, how to do sensing,” he adds. Researchers at the lab have expertise in hardware, robotics, machine learning, wireless networks, and human-computer interfaces, among other disciplines. “We believe in prototyping, from hardware through software systems, and we have a user-centered viewpoint,” says Wetherall. “We are finding out what users want.”

It sounds a lot like the “connected computing” (or ubiquitous computing) trend that the founders of Voyager Capital were telling me about last week, from an investor’s perspective—the confluence of software, wireless, and digital media. I asked Wetherall what connections the Intel lab has with the local innovation community in these areas. “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 Follow @gthuang

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