As a child tagging along on her anthropologist mother's field studies, Genevieve Bell grew up in some of Australia's poorest aboriginal communities, where the residents often lacked running water or electricity and their futures seemed desperately in doubt.

Now an anthropologist herself, she's doing field studies, but of a far different sort, working for tech giant Intel (INTC), which is fighting for its own survival. Heavily dependent upon the stagnant personal-computer business, the Santa Clara company is urgently trying to get its chips into other devices. So Bell and her team of about 100 social scientists, human-factors engineers and others -- including two "futurists" -- spend much of their time envisioning what gadgets will be popular in years to come, to give Intel ideas about where it should put its energy.

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell gets a laugh at her camera obscura modified as a Halloween decoration by members of her team of futurists in their office at
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell gets a laugh at her camera obscura modified as a Halloween decoration by members of her team of futurists in their office at Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., Tuesday morning, Oct. 29, 2013. The group, when not making Halloween decorations, works at assessing possible future uses for the company's chips. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

It's a daunting responsibility -- Intel's fate could hinge on the accuracy of their forecasts. But helping the legendary corporation navigate the changes roiling society is a job the 46-year-old relishes.

"It does feel like I've been on this epic voyage," she said of her career. "I can't imagine a better place to be."

Indeed, Mike Liebhold, a researcher with the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future, which helps companies and others with forecasting, noted that at Intel "the whole culture is highly attuned to long-term thinking."

And Bell has greatly contributed to that, said tech analyst Rob Enderle, who has monitored her career for years, once terming her "Intel's secret weapon."

Besides being bright, "she can actually communicate with the Intel engineers," he said, which is important because sometimes "engineers lose track of who they are building for and all of a sudden lose the market." Calling her "well regarded" at Intel, he added, "it's really what makes the company very different from their competitors -- that they have this person focused on people, on the human aspect of technology."

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell, right, talks with principal engineer Lama Nachman, part of a team of futurists at Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., attempting
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell, right, talks with principal engineer Lama Nachman, part of a team of futurists at Intel in Santa Clara, Calif., attempting to forecast future uses for the company's chips, Tuesday morning, Oct. 29, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

After coming to the U.S. to complete her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr, Bell earned a doctorate in cultural anthropology at Stanford in 1998 and was recruited to join Intel the same year. It seemed a natural move, since her father was an engineer. But many of her co-workers greeted her uneasily.

"There was an extraordinary amount of initial skepticism," she recalled. "There was a lot of having to explain what anthropology was and why that was valuable."

At the time, Intel was trying to understand the implications of the shift in desktop computing from the office to the home. But her interests were more fundamental and far reaching.

"I wanted to understand what motivated people, what were the kinds of daily pattens of their lives into which our technology did or didn't fit," said Bell, an Intel Fellow who is also the company's director of interaction and experience research.

To help assess those factors, her group has compiled more than 250,000 interviews with consumers and others in 45 countries. They've also solicited ideas about changes the world might undergo from science fiction writers. And Bell, who splits her time between Santa Clara and Intel's Oregon offices, has even spent innumerable hours in homes.

"I've cooked meals with people, I've baby-sat, I've been taken to weddings, I've been taken to high school graduations," she said. "It's a way of seeing what people actually do, versus what they say they do on questionnaires."

Bell sidestepped questions about a major source of criticism leveled at Intel -- its delay in pushing its chips into the fast-growing smartphone and tablet markets. Whether her group missed the trend or its advice was ignored isn't clear. Intel President Renée James has merely said the company didn't make getting into mobile devices a priority.

Whatever the case, Bell's focus these days is on the devices that will replace what's now on the market, and she demonstrated a few Intel is studying during a recent conference. One was a smart jacket for bicyclists with chips woven into its fabric that flashes red when the rider brakes. Another was a smartphone that, instead of requiring a password, could identify its owner by his or her gait. She also showed off a phone that could determine when its user was located near someone they were talking to, by detecting the same background sounds during their conversation.

Anthropologist Genevieve Bell, left, talks with research scientist Jennifer Healy, at an Intel lab in Santa Clara, Calif., where a staff of futurists tries
Anthropologist Genevieve Bell, left, talks with research scientist Jennifer Healy, at an Intel lab in Santa Clara, Calif., where a staff of futurists tries to anticipate future uses for the company's chips, Tuesday morning, Oct. 29, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Bell foresees a paradigm shift in computing, where people forge highly personal relationships with their devices.

While some devices today can recommend restaurants or movies based on a person's previously expressed preferences, for example, she considers that hardly sufficient.

"As human beings, we don't want to just have lists of other things we are likely to like, based on our past behavior," she said. "We don't just want the familiar. It's boring."

Instead, she believes future machines will be able to "delight and surprise" their owners, and even assume what she termed a "nurturing" role toward people.

An example of the latter is a concept being pushed by one of her futurists, Brian David Johnson, which he calls a "laptop or smartphone with legs." It's a microchip powered robot that he envisions anyone being able to create with open-source software and a 3-D printer, costing less than $1,000 and handling a variety of tasks, including reminding elderly people to take their medications.

Other ideas that he and Bell's other futurist, Steve Brown, mused about during recent interviews ranged from "self-replicating computational systems" to smart purses that sound alarms if their contents are stolen to intelligent car headlights that steer their beams around raindrops so drivers experience less reflective glare during downpours -- also something Intel has been working on.

Bell acknowledges that many people are uncomfortable with such technological innovations, fearing they might hinder privacy, among other concerns. But she doesn't share those worries.

While "we're clearly going through a major transformation," she said, the only thing that really frightens her is, "I won't live long enough to see it play out."

Contact Steve Johnson at sjohnson@mercurynews.com or 408-930-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.

Genevieve Bell
Age: 46
Title: Intel's director of interaction and experience research; also an Intel Fellow
Education: Bachelor's degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr, doctorate in cultural anthropology from Stanford.
Where she grew up: Australia, in Melbourne, Canberra and that country's various aboriginal communities.
Early ambition: To go into politics, but she later developed a passion for academic research
Honors: 2010, named one of Fast Company's "100 Most Creative People in Business"; 2012, inducted into Women In Technology International Hall of Fame; 2013, named Woman of Vision for Leadership by Anita Borg Institute