Oct 25, 2020

Optical Computing: Solving Problems at the Speed of Light

Posted by in categories: computing, internet, quantum physics

Optical computing, which uses photons instead of electrons, has been one of the great promises of this field for decades.

According to Moore’s law —actually more like a forecast, formulated in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore— the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles about every two years, boosting the power of the chips without increasing their energy consumption. For half a century, Moore’s prescient vision has presided over the spectacular progress made in the world of computing. However, by 2015, the engineer himself predicted that we are reaching a saturation point in current technology. Today, quantum computing holds out hope for a new technological leap, but there is another option on which many are pinning their hopes: optical computing, which replaces electronics (electrons) with light (photons).

The end of Moore’s law is a natural consequence of physics: to pack more transistors into the same space they have to be shrunk down, which increases their speed while simultaneously reducing their energy consumption. The miniaturisation of silicon transistors has succeeded in breaking the 7-nanometre barrier, which used to be considered the limit, but this reduction cannot continue indefinitely. And although more powerful systems can always be obtained by increasing the number of transistors, in doing so the processing speed will decrease and the heat of the chips will rise.

The hybridization of electronics and optics

Hence the promise of optical computing: photons move at the speed of light, faster than electrons in a wire. Optical technology is also not a newcomer to our lives: the vast global traffic on the information highways today travels on fibre optic channels, and for years we have used optical readers to burn and read our CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. However, in the guts of our systems, the photons coming through the fibre optic cable must be converted into electrons in the microchips, and in turn these electrons must be converted to photons in the optical readers, slowing down the process.

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