Optical computing is a computing technology in the research and theory stage.

The idea would be to make a computer that relies entirely on light (photons) instead of electricity (electrons) to do computing. The appeal of optical computers is limited, because with short distances, they require more power than electronic computers to do the same computation. Still, optical computing may allow the construction of computers physically impossible using electronics. Optical computing is still in the early stages of development -- only a few very limited prototypes have currently been constructed in the lab. An optical computer primarily uses lasers to send signals. Unfortunately, lasers can't interact directly with one another in any meaningful way, so performing computations requires an intermediary in the form of matter somehow. Attempts to make "optical transistors" have tended to revolve around materials that re-emit light selectively in response to the intensity of the incoming light. Putting together these components into a huge web can allow the construction of an optical computer. Thus far, optics has been enthusiastically adopted for data transmission over long distances, as in fiber optics. Over short distances, however -- and this is one of the main downsides of optical computing -- the energy loss experienced by the light requires more power to send a signal than using electrons to send the same signal over the same distance. Over long distances, light wins out, but part of the point of computers is that they're supposed to be small, and the distances over which light is better (10 ft/3 m or more) are pretty big by the standards of computing. Still, it is conceivable that optic channels could be used in large supercomputers to send data more efficiently than electronics. In theory, optical computing could produce computers tens of thousands of times faster than today's computers, because light can travel that much faster than electric current. In practice, however, the need to use large beams of light to avoid signal loss has precluded that possibility. More recently, however, researchers at Harvard University found a way to flip a register using only a single photon, a milestone which could open the path to efficient optical computing. The researchers took advantage of plasmons, tiny surface disturbances in a medium which can be created by bombarding it with photons. Optical computing, like quantum computing, is one of those wild-card technologies -- it's one among dozens of approaches that are being developed in anticipation of running up against physical limits with conventional electronic computing, but it remains to be seen whether it will bear fruit in the longer term. Unless you're working on the technology yourself, all we can do now is wait and watch.

They whizz through optical fibres. It is being used to give ordinary PCs the ability to connect with other devices using high-speed optical cables at ten gigabits per second²20 times faster than a standard USB cable. Now. says the Bible. But at each end of the fibre. It is easy to see the attraction of replacing electrons. Light is also a source of inspiration in computing. But this expense has kept optical data-links from being used inside personal computers and servers. so an optical computer could theoretically process information at speeds that make even a supercomputer look glacial.³GOD is light´. has been developed by Intel. but selected components that can work with light will make their way into computers ever more deeply. called Light Peak. with photons. Yet this breakthrough has proved elusive. The components that do such conversion are expensive. So far. Light Peak. hard drives and screens are getting more demanding. It is in this area where a number of new optical alternatives are emerging from some of the biggest firms in the business. Ever since the first optical transistors were developed in the late 1980s. That is now changing because computer systems are outrunning their electrical wiring. These particles of light are the fastest things in the universe. researchers have dreamed of building a light-powered computer. Photons are ideal for piping information over long distances. Peripheral devices like printers. This does not matter in a network. to multiply its capacity). radiating with knowledge. the power of processors continues to increase exponentially. new developments mean that optical technologies are starting to appear inside computers. rarely getting lost or interfering with one another (which is why different coloured signals can be sent down a single fibre. however. the head of Intel¶s photonics lab. This means the cable could drive a high-definition display or transfer a movie in seconds. optical signals must be converted to and from the electrical signals that computers use to process information. Related topics y IBM y Science y Physics y Science and technology y Electrical engineering Data in a flash One of these new interconnects. however. networks are running faster and. predicts Mario Paniccia. will make optical connections as pervasive as wireless ones²and drive demand for more powerful processors. which travel along copper wires and make today¶s computers tick. most importantly. The all-optical computer remains a dream. The so-called ³interconnects´ between all these components are struggling to keep up. optical technology has been confined mostly to telecoms networks and some of the cabling in data centres. where costs can be spread among many users. which explains Intel¶s interest. .

silicon is not a bad material for making optical devices. Intel also devised ways to assemble and test the components quickly. which it hopes one day to combine on optical chips. So mass-produced optical processors remain far off. Conveniently. Having developed a simplified. it is mounting fibre-optic cables straight onto the chips that direct the traffic between a supercomputer¶s multiple processors. and signed up a group of suppliers to churn them out by the million. This missing bit does not surprise David Miller of the Photonics Research Centre at Stanford University. requires exotic materials and lasers that demand more power than conventional transistors. It uses similar methods to those employed to manufacture processors and other types of integrated circuits. For its part. cheap versions of the converters that turn electrical signals into light and vice versa. electrons need to be turned into photons ³as close as possible to where the signal is processed´. But one vital building block is missing from Intel¶s kit: an optical equivalent of the transistors that perform the logical operations at the heart of a computer. HP is using waveguides²small strips of plastic with grooves on their highly reflective metallic walls. Optical transistors. So it is developing an optical replacement for the interconnects in server ³racks´. not least because lasers cannot be made as small as transistors.Intel did not have to invent anything new. researchers are using optical interconnects to make supercomputers run faster. he says. But using light to process information is tricky. To speed up the flow of data. It is hard to make such components small and cheap enough to compete with copper wiring. but HP¶s researchers have managed to cut costs by making waveguides with an injection-moulding system similar to that used to mass-produce CDs. But at least the other bits are on the way. low-cost chip to do the job. but it did have to work out how to make small. Instead of optical fibre. could be used to improve lasers and replace expensive lenses in DVD players and other consumer products. Again. Hewlett-Packard¶s concern is keeping its servers competitive: their cabling is getting bulkier. such as waveguides and lasers. And Intel has come up with an entire kit of tiny optical devices made of silicon. will have a hard time competing with electrical ones. Various techniques for making optical transistors regularly appear in laboratories. starting next year. using this technology to transmit light is not a new thing. explains Bert Offrein of IBM Research. Over at IBM. says Raymond Beausoleil of HP Labs. Researchers at HP Labs recently managed to etch a pattern into a flat piece of silicon so that it could focus light ³like a spoon´. not least because there is no agreement over the best way to build them. miniaturisation is not straightforward. based on existing technology. he says. This effect. Moreover. not something that is about to appear in humble home or office PCs any time soon. The idea of using similar optical interconnects between a computer¶s various components is. IBM has used silicon to develop a fast and extremely thin photodetector to convert optical signals into electrical ones. and data centres are becoming much harder to cool and increasingly energy hungry. For this reason. . But one technology that does show promise in making such connections is called ³silicon photonics´.

An electric current flows at only about 10 percent of the speed of light. besides being much faster than an electronic one. Optical technology is employed in CD-ROM drives and their relatives. The ultimate goal is the so-called photonic network . none of these devices are fully optical. all rely to some extent on conventional electronic circuits and components. and most photocopiers and scanners. Visible-light and IR beams. By applying some of the advantages of visible and/or IR networks at the device and component scale. an optical computer. might also be smaller. although rather large. unlike electric currents. to perform digital computations. (At least one complete. a computer might someday be developed that can perform operations 10 or more times faster than a conventional electronic computer. full-motion video can be transmitted along a bundle of fibers by breaking the image into voxels.rather than electric current.An optical computer (also called a photonic computer) is a device that uses the photons in visible light or infrared ( IR ) beams. Electric currents must be guided around each other. pass through each other without interacting. Some optical integrated circuits have been designed and manufactured. even when they are confined essentially to two dimensions. Optical technology has made its most significant inroads in digital communications. which uses visible andIR energy exclusively between each source and destination. but most agree that transitions will occur in specialized areas one at a time. Some engineers think optical computing will someday be common. but there is no interference among the beams. Several (or many) laser beams can be shone so their paths intersect. even though the impulses carrying the data are visible light or IR. computer has been built using optical circuits. Some optical devices can be controlled by electronic currents.) Three-dimensional. This limits the rate at which data can be exchanged over long distances. and is one of the factors that led to the evolution of optical fiber . where fiber optic data transmission has become commonplace. Thus. and this makes three-dimensional wiring necessary. . laser printers. However.

the development of more powerful processing systems becomes possible. e. Thus. so does the amount of electricity required. Electric currents must be guided around each other.g. An electric current creates heat in computer systems. optical correlators. unlike metal conductors. Electrons repel each other. optoelectronic devices lose c. for example. however. on a given size scale.even when they are confined essentially to two dimensions. By applying some of the advantages of visible and/or IR networks at the device and component scale.[1] Application-specific devices have been designed which use principles of optical computing.An optical computer (also called a photonic computer) is a device that uses the photons of visible light or infrared (IR) beams. However. and this makes three-dimensional wiring necessary. Most research projects focus on replacing current computer components with optical equivalents. Contents [hide] y y y y y y 1 Optical components for binary digital computer o 1. For this reason. to perform digital computations. This approach appears to offer the best short-term prospects for commercial optical computing. challenges and prospects 3 Photonic logic 4 Further reading 5 References 6 External links [edit] Optical components for binary digital computer . Coherent light beams. might also be smaller. rather than electrons in an electric current.. besides being much faster than an electronic one. since optical components could be integrated into traditional computers to produce an optical/electronic hybrid. an optical computer. As the processing speed increases. signals over copper wires degrade rapidly. with little or no interference among them . resulting in an optical digital computer system processing binary data. create substantially less heat than electrons. pass through each other without interfering (at least not after the intersection). All-optical computers eliminate the need for optical-electrical-optical (OEO) conversions. Several laser beams can be transmitted in such a way that their paths intersect. Such devices can be used for detecting and tracking objects. This also slows down transmission of messages. Fiber optic cables do not have this problem. Thus. a computer might someday be developed that can perform operations significantly faster than a conventional electronic computer.30% of their energy converting electrons into photons and back. while photons do not. Photons. this extra heat is extremely damaging to the hardware.1 Controversy 2 Misconceptions.

[citation needed] A significant challenge to optical computing is that computation is a nonlinear process in which multiple signals must interact to compute the answer.[4] which in turn are assembled into the higher level components of the computer's CPU. As communication data rates rise. Currently these interconnects are being tested and expanded by Intel. Light. materials exist[2] where the intensity of incoming light affects the intensity of the light transmitted through the material in a similar manner to the voltage response of an electronic transistor. fan-out and input±output isolation". means that more signal power is required to achieve the same data capacity. but an optical communication system will typically use more power over short distances than an electronic one. challenges and prospects A claimed advantage of optics is that it can reduce power consumption. from information theory. and high speed. Such an "optical transistor"[3][4] can be used to create optical logic gates. but at speeds higher than 40 GHz. this distance becomes longer and so the prospect of using optics in computing systems becomes more practical. over longer distances and at greater data rates. power consumption. low power. cost. can only interact with another electromagnetic wave in the presence of electrons in a material[clarification needed]. and the strength of this interaction is much weaker for electromagnetic wave light than for the electronic signals in a conventional computer. an equivalent "optical transistor" is required. [edit] Controversy There are ongoing disagreements among researchers with regard to the future capabilities of optical computers: will they be able to compete with semiconductor-based electronic computers in terms of speed. However.The fundamental building block of modern electronic computers is the transistor. all of which are currently provided by electronic transistors at low cost. This is achieved using materials with a non-linear refractive index. and form factor? Opponents of the idea that optical computers can be competitive note that [5] real world logic systems require "logic-level restoration. cascadability. only optics can cope. This is because the shot noise of an optical communication channel is greater than the thermal noise of an electrical channel which. To replace electronic components with optical ones. This results in the processing elements for an optical computer requiring more power and larger dimensions than those for a conventional electronic computer using transistors. major breakthroughs in non-linear optical device technology would be required. the loss in electrical lines is sufficiently large that optical communications will comparatively use a lower amount of power. For optical logic to be competitive beyond a few niche applications.[citation needed] Until recently. or perhaps a paradigm shift in computing itself. [edit] Misconceptions. There has been a large expansion in the optical interconnects for photonic based computing.[6] . which is an electromagnetic wave. electronics was fine for computer processing. These will be non linear crystals used to manipulate light beams into controlling others. In particular.

. NOR. XOR. XNOR). since they allow a build-up of energy from constructive interference.[4] Resonators are especially useful in photonic logic.[edit] Photonic logic Realization of a Photonic Controlled-NOT Gate for use in Quantum Computing Photonic logic is the use of photons (light) in logic gates (NOT. OR. thus enhancing optical nonlinear effects. Switching is obtained using nonlinear optical effects when two or more signals are combined. Other approaches currently being investigated include photonic logic at a molecular level. using photoluminescent chemicals. AND. NAND.

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