The Many Brains Behind Intel Edison

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New SD card sized Intel computer began as research project for a "little thing you could add to a feature phone."

On stage in his keynote address opening International CES in Las Vegas, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich asked, "How do we make everything smart?"

He held up in his hand an answer to that question: Intel Edison. According to Krzanich, the small computer he introduced at the world's largest consumer electronics trade show is a "full Pentium class PC in the form factor of an SD card."

The Intel Quark technology-powered computer supports multiple operating systems and contains built-in wireless and power-efficient compute capabilities for anyone looking to create an Internet-connected device.

Though Edison is tiny, many teams were involved in its development. Randy Wang, the chief scientist of Intel Labs China, oversaw that team's contributions to Edison. Recently, he talked about the journey from idea to product and explained why it's important that Edison lets people "experiment and fail."

Randy Wang left Princeton University six years ago as a professor of computer science. In 2010, he joined Intel Labs China as its chief scientist, where he took on a key role in a small but promising research project that would eventually become Intel Edison.

The research project started out as a "little thing you could add to a feature phone," said Wang, but soon matured into a more versatile and more ambitious device with computation, communication and storage all squeezed into an SD card-sized form factor. Intel Labs China set up a contest asking participants to come up with 30 to 40 "quirky, crazy things" people might do with the technology, which netted ideas such as social toys, smart cameras and automatic mapping for indoor locations.

"You cannot predict easily what the next big thing will be," said Wang. "You want to do a thousand things and most of them will fail. You may have a few successes and in them, multiplied many times, that's a lot of chips Intel can sell." His team would eventually work with a startup founded by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Rest Devices that created Nursery 2.0 and the eventual Intel Edison-equipped baby onesie that Krzanich demoed at CES.

Teams from around the world helped with Intel Edison, including those in Bangalore, Texas and Ireland. Intel Labs China worked with researchers from Beijing's Tsinghua University in a joint research lab on their campus that Wang described as a "cross between a graduate school computer science program and a Silicon Valley startup."

"If you have something that grabs hearts and minds," he said of the collaboration on Edison, "people just want to work on it."

Wang noted that the legendary inventor and namesake of the new Intel SD-card computer, Thomas Edison, had many efforts that didn't succeed and that failure is inherent to the process of innovation.

"Edison was a maker and most of what he did failed," he said. "In some sense, we want people to experiment and fail because the cost of failing is so low. And in the process of experimenting and failing, inevitably something will come to the surface and succeed when you let your imagination go free."

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Randy Wang, chief scientist of Intel Labs China

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