Predictions of a tech titan

Craig Barrett, stepping down as chief of Intel, is excited about the future of microchips.

Published April 12, 2005 3:39PM (EDT)

When 25th century historians consider the figures who shaped our lives, will they turn to politicians, popes -- or the captains of high-tech industry? George W. Bush versus Bill Gates? Among those competing with Gates and Michael Dell to have their features one day carved into a digital Mount Rushmore is Craig Barrett, chief executive of Intel, which as the world's biggest maker of microchips has made an impact on the life of anyone who ever sent an e-mail.

"Every 50 years there is an industry which changes the world," says Barrett, who, age 65 and about to be "kicked upstairs" to chair the Intel board, has cause to dwell on the past. But not for long. "You go back to the 1850s, to the 1900s, to the time when the steam engine and steel changed the world, and you look at the 1900s to 1950s, when it was the automobile, the airplane and the TV.

"If you look at the 1950s onwards, you might find two categories: biotechnology, the health sciences' equivalent to the physical sciences; and computers, microelectronics and the integrated circuit, which made electronic functionality do things you couldn't possibly imagine.

"Being a part of an industrial effort that changes the way the world thinks, looks, acts, plays, does business, educates itself, entertains itself, communicates between ourselves -- you can't be in a better place at a better time."

Barrett has been described as a traveling preacher of technology and, despite making way for Paul Otellini as chief executive of Intel next month, shows little appetite for slowing down, although there is perspiration on his brow and he looks as though he could do with an afternoon nap if time permitted. He is in London's fashionable Metropolitan Hotel for a visit that takes in a country a day -- "starting and finishing in the Middle East to take advantage of Sundays at both ends."

As board chairman, he will continue to play this ambassadorial role for Intel, which does business in 150 countries and rivals Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Microsoft and Sony in lists of the world's most recognized brands.

Anyone interested in crystal-ball gazing would be better off asking Barrett than Mystic Meg or Jonathan Cainer. He's seen the future and it's small. Last week Intel announced plans to spend nearly 2.7 billion pounds on upgrading its plants to produce 65-nanometer chips -- a fraction of the size of a pinhead -- with even smaller chips to follow in two more years.

Where is it all leading? Barrett is most excited about healthcare. "You could use technology to cut medical costs for home care, especially for older people in terms of remote monitoring. You're starting to see a lot of these simple home diagnostics. For example, if I have diabetes, it's sugar levels in my blood; or if I have heart problems, it's respiratory rate and heartbeat. A lot of those simple diagnostics could be done at home with a simple piece of equipment that could download the information to your doctor, who could look at it once a week and say, "Mrs. Jones is doing fine. No need for her to come and see me." So you cut the cost."

Another example is treatment. "You have a disease; there's 'a standard treatment,' which may or may not be best for you. With more computer power, I could tailor or personalize it. Your individual makeup is probably different from somebody else with the same illness. So if I wanted the most effective treatment, I'd analyze your human genome and your DNA and say, 'OK, this is how you are, on that basis this is how you'd react to this disease, [so] this is how I should treat the disease.'"

Most sci-fi of all is the prospect of minuscule transistors in the bloodstream that could emit a warning signal at the first sign of a disease such as cancer, crucially allowing it to be treated far earlier. "There is a lot of exciting diagnostic work going on using microelectronic structures. The transistors we make happen to be smaller than the proteins, the disease markers you're looking for. So if you can somehow use that structure to help analyze the disease and determine it at very low concentrations, you can treat it early and have success.

"The next step, if you use those structures to detect it, is that you can also make very simple closed-loop systems for detection and drug delivery. So the best way to treat your illness is to always have X milligrams of whatever in the bloodstream on a little patch with a wireless capability -- something that can sense what is going in your body chemistry -- and have a feedback loop with a drug delivery system. All those things, people are talking about today; five years from now, they could be like the Internet. You could go from a scientific oddity to mainstream almost overnight."

Like other titans of technology, Barrett still has in his eyes a schoolboy shine of enthusiasm for "cool shit" -- his words. He has a 333-acre ranch in Montana, where he rides horses and hikes and has a home media center incorporating VHS, DVD, jukeboxes, satellite receivers and other shiny gadgets. He and his wife, Barbara, a lawyer, have another -- main -- home in Arizona.

Before joining Intel in 1974, Barrett was an associate professor at Stanford University, and he has never lost his passion for education. Just as Microsoft wages war on third-world poverty, so Intel is spending about 53 million pounds a year supporting schools and university research around the world. Barrett had been in talks in London with the government prior to its launch of a "Digital Britain" strategy to improve Internet access in schools and spread the gospel of broadband for all.

"It is very much a way to give something back to society. We don't do sporting events; we do education stuff. We train teachers around the world to integrate technology in the classroom. We do computer clubhouses. We do a bunch of things to try to get kids exposed to technology, math and science. And it's in a sense related to our business, because we hire engineers and scientists, and we would like more and more people to be interested in that. But our primary motive is our contribution back to the system."

Governments are all too grateful when the benevolent Barrett parachutes in, but does that mean Intel -- which made net profits last year of 3.9 billion pounds -- is now more powerful than many a nation-state? "I think that would be stretching it bit," he says. "We tend to have a big research and development budget that might be a lot bigger than [that of] a lot of nation-states, and we can help people build their infrastructures, but I would prefer to think that any activity we have has to fall under the general guidelines of a win-win public-private partnership -- not an 'Intel is in charge' or 'Intel is pulling the strings' or 'Intel is telling the government what to do.' Every time I have seen any IT program succeed it involves the public sector."

He jokes: "We don't have our own army and air force."

As China, India and other competitors devour information technology, Barrett warns other economies to keep pace -- including America. "To some degree the U.S. government has left it to the private sector, and maybe it is preoccupied by other matters. There is a lot of discussion in the U.S. and the U.K. about budget deficits, the war in Iraq, national security and things of that sort.

"The prospect for the U.S. could be that it stays stagnant while other people grow and get closer to it. You've seen some examples of established economies having problems. The Japanese had problems for about the last decade for a variety of reasons. One of them, I think, was rather ineffective, low-penetration use of IT from a private-sector standpoint."

The prophet of the digital age has spoken. Bush and Blair, wrestling with health and education and striving to put their own stamp on history, should take heed. It's the technology, stupid.

By David Smith

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