Intel’s Global Research Head, Andrew Chien, Sizes Up the State of West Coast Innovation

My last memory of Andrew Chien might be wrestling with him on the living room floor circa 1981. Growing up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, his family and mine were friends. Chien grew up to be a professor of computer science at his hometown University of Illinois, then a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and now a vice president and director of research at Intel. Our meeting yesterday, at the 2008 Intel Research Seattle open house, was much more civilized than our last encounter (when I was about 10 and he was a teenager).

Besides his expertise in distributed computing and corporate research, Chien is interesting to Xconomy because of his connections to various innovation communities, on the West Coast and elsewhere. He has lived in San Diego for the past 10 years or so, but his Intel office is in Hillsboro, OR, and he also spends a fair bit of time at corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, CA. “Intel is very distributed,” he says. “I have global responsibilities, including in China and India.” When we talked, he was getting ready for a business trip to Taiwan.

From his global perspective, Chien has some keen insights into East Coast and West Coast innovation. “The Boston community was built on the backs of Route 128 defense contractors, which gave birth to the Digitals of the world, and then biotechs came out of universities,” he says. San Diego has some similarities to that model, Chien points out. “I’m amazed by Qualcomm and the wirelesss diaspora that came out of it. Qualcomm came out of the defense industry—Route 15 companies, which were heavily defense contractors—and there’s materials and radio expertise which is quite different from what you see in Silicon Valley.”

“The other interesting thing in San Diego,” he continues, “is there’s been really interesting crossover between information theory and communications, with life sciences. All that [information theory] methodology is spilling into the bio space…Bioinformatics really started at the level of blueprints. Then it moved rapidly to gene regulation, control loops, and systems. Those systems don’t operate in the traditional way that systems operate in electrical or mechanical engineering, because they’re statistical. Bringing those [mathematical] techniques to bear on biological systems to understand how they work, that synergy is powerful…The number of information theorists per capita in San Diego is high.”

I asked Chien what Intel Research is doing in the field, and he mentioned nucleic acid sequencing (e.g., DNA and RNA). “It’s all in the broad vein of the ‘X-dollar genome,’ which is getting cheaper and cheaper. Most techniques today, like 23andMe and Affymetrix, are based on optical sensing,” he says. “For Intel, optical is interesting, but it’s not the sweet spot for our interest…The grand dream is, can you move to a basis of electrical sensing.” If so, he says, you could do a huge amount of scaling up that’s possible because of the infrastructure built up around silicon chips. “The very broad vision of where this goes is not for medical or scientific research, but for sequencing as broad-based sensing—for instance, environmental sensing [e.g., food or water testing for safety] at low cost. It’s a long-range research effort.”

On that note, I asked Chien about his broader vision for Intel Research. “We call it ‘Essential Computing,'” he says. “About two and a half years ago, when I started at Intel, we took a hard look at where computing is going. The big change is that computing is moving from work-oriented tasks to social and communication-oriented applications, including health and well-being.” Essential computing, as Chien explains, will “simplify and enrich our lives.”

The effort rests on two main pillars or technological thrusts, he says. The first is “new functionality” that will allow computing devices to sense and be aware of everything from your emotional state to who your friends are. To some extent, that’s happening already. The second pillar is motivated by what Chien calls “the dirty secret of the IT industry—our technology is hard to use. It often lets us down. We need to make technology something you’d depend on” for sensitive communications with people important to you, he says. In the end, it’s about making computing devices simpler and easier to use. “It’s like your wristwatch,” Chien says. “It’s got to become that integrated and that reliable.”

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