The Dawn of Optical Computing

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The Dawn of Optical Computing

Higher data transfer rates.  That's what's driving much of today's computer R&D.  Optical computing promises to deliver much higher data transfer speeds while dramatically reducing heat problems. 

"Waste heat" is one of the primary factors limiting the performance of conventional CPUs.  Because photons moving through a medium generate much less heat than electrons moving through a semiconductor, this means more processing power can be packed into smaller spaces without overheating. 

The telecommunications industry will benefit from optical computing more than most.  Today's fiber networks are limited at various stages by having to translate a "light signal" into an "electrical signal" and then translate it back to a "light signal."   "All-optical signal processing" promises to provide the speed, bandwidth, and price performance that are crucial for this industry. 

Finally, adding the speed and efficiency of optics to traditional electronics could create hybrid systems capable of achieving performance levels that are inconceivable with conventional electronics alone.  This could potentially pave the way for completely new devices, systems, and applications.

So, where does this research currently stand and where is it headed? 

Researchers at ETH Zurich reported that that have successfully created an "optical transistor" using a single molecule.  That breakthrough brings us another step closer to building a genuine optical computer. 

In the electronics world, a transistor acts as the switch that controls the flow of electricity within a circuit.  To produce integrated circuits that operate on the basis of photons instead of electrons, there needs to be a way to control the flow of photons — and that's precisely what the optical transistor does.  With their single-molecule transistor, as described in Nature,1 the ETH Zurich scientists have essentially devised a way to switch light with light. 

But there's a catch.  This transistor currently operates at just one degree above absolute zero.  As Vahid Sandoghdar, Professor at the ETH Zurich Laboratory of Physical Chemistry explains, "Many more years of research will still be needed before photons replace electrons in transistors."

While we're waiting, another recent breakthrough may yield results in the short term.  IBM scientists have integrated electrical and optical devices on the same piece of silicon, enabling computer chips to communicate using pulses of light, instead of electrical signals.  This results in smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient chips than are possible with conventional technologies...

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