Intel recently announced that it is closing down its three "lablets" in Berkeley, Seattle, and Pittsburgh. I know a lot of people who work at the Intel Labs and in fact spent a year at the Berkeley lab before joining Harvard in 2003. (I should be clear that not all of Intel Research is closing down -- just the lablets.) All of the researchers have been told to find new jobs, though some of them are getting picked up by Intel-sponsored research centers at the nearby Universities.
The Intel Labs were a fantastic experiment to rethink how industrial research should be done. They first started in 2001 under the model that full-time Intel researchers would work side-by-side with faculty and students from the nearby universities. All of the research was done under an open intellectual property model where results were co-owned by the university and Intel. In fact the labs were not inside of the Intel corporate network and operated largely autonomously from the rest of Intel. This allowed projects to be done seamlessly across the Intel/academic barrier and for students to come and go without restrictions on the IP.
Some fantastic work came out of the Labs. The Berkeley lab drove most of the early work on sensor networks and TinyOS, especially while David Culler and his various students were there. The Seattle lab developed PlaceLab (the precursor to WiFi based localization found in every cell phone platform today); WISP (the first computing platform powered by passive RFID); and lots of great work on security of wireless networks. The Pittsburgh lab did work on camera-based sensor networks, cloud computing, and robotics. All of these projects have benefitted tremendously from the close ties that the Labs had with the university.
Before the Labs opened, Intel Research was consistently ranked one of the lowest amongst all major technology companies in terms of research stature and output. I feel that the Labs really put Intel Research on the map by involving world-class academics and doing high-profile projects. They have attracted some of the top PhDs and offered a much more academic alternative to a place like, say, IBM Research.
I have no idea why Intel decided to close the labs. The official press release is devoid of any rationale, and obviously tries to spin the positive angle (the establishment of the university-based research centers which will replace the Labs). I've spoken with a number of the researchers there since the announcement, and have formed my own theories about why Intel is shutting them down. The most obvious possibility is that the Labs are incredibly expensive to run, and it's hard to link the work they do to Intel's bottom line. After all, very little of the work done at the Labs is picked up by Intel's product groups. The Labs' mission has always been to inform the five-to-ten-year roadmap for the company. It's unclear to me whether they have been successful in this, though at least they have inspired some entertaining commercials.
Personally, I'm worried about what this means for industrial computer science research. Here is one of the world's largest and most wealthy tech companies, closing down a set of labs that employs some of the top minds in the field, which by all measures has been really successful in producing novel and high-impact research. If Intel can't figure out how to leverage that amazing talent pool, it does not bode well for the rest of the industry.
Maybe this suggests is that the conventional industrial research model is simply broken. The only (important) places left that use this model are Microsoft, IBM, and HP. These companies can afford to set up big labs with lots of PhDs and pay them to do whatever the hell they want with little accountability, but maybe this model is no longer sustainable. As I've written before, Google takes a very different approach, one in which there is no division between "research" and "engineering." The advantage is that it's always clear how the research activities relate to the company's priorities, although it does mean that researchers are not doing purely "academic" work, the main output of which is more papers.
One closing thought. Perhaps Intel realizes it can have far more impact by setting up large, high-impact research programs within universities rather than run its own labs. In some ways I can appreciate this point of view: help the universities do what they do best. But the way this is being done is unlikely to be successful. The first such Intel center on visual computing involves something like 25 PIs spread across eight universities. Each PI is only getting enough to fund work they were already doing, so this is an example of doing something that looks good on paper but is unlikely to move the needle at all for these research groups. This seems like a missed opportunity for Intel.
Obligatory disclaimer: This is my personal blog. The views expressed here are mine alone and not those of my employer.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.
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