If you could find a way harness the speed of light – 299,792,458 meters per second – in computer processing, processors could handle massive amounts of data at mind-numbing speeds.
At the very least, it could lead to computer speeds that are up to 100 times faster than those in use today.
That’s why industry leaders have been pursuing the promise of optical computing for decades now.
Indeed, we’ve figured out how to pump light through fiber optics for super-high-speed communications in computer networks and the Web. That’s become routine today.
But still, no one could find a way to solve the challenge of focusing light in tiny spaces like computer chips. It’s a brick wall known as the “diffraction limit.” Simply stated, it means that once you get into tiny spaces – like the postage-stamp size of a semiconductor – you can no longer focus a light beam.
Two teams of computer researchers have just announced major advances that promise to make optical computing a reality in the very near future.
One comes from a famous tech leader whose shares are publicly traded; the other out of academia. Of course, major advances in the lab often make it to market in ways that mean profits for early investors. This is one of those rare cases where a breakthrough happens at a prestigious university… and you could literally invest in the field today.
So let’s start with the breakthrough from Caltech. A team there has made a device that can focus light to a point several times smaller than the end of a human hair.
The California Institute of Technology team got around the diffraction limit by building a new “waveguide” that can channel light as though it were moving inside tiny tunnels. This is just plain brilliant. They took a material that’s much like glass and topped it with a thin layer of gold.
The result is a device built on a semiconductor using nanotech methods that are standard in industry today. Team members said this means the new device should integrate easily with current technology and could have a strong impact on at least two major fields.
- First is biotech. Caltech says the device can also function as a high-res microscope that can peer inside of cells to better study disease and new drugs.
- Second, it also could lead to computer memory that is 50 times larger than today’s 1,000 gigabytes per square inch.
Of course, team leader Hyuck Choo can think of one other application that could have a big impact on the world. Said Choo, “Don’t be surprised if you see a similar kind of device inside a computer you someday buy.”
And that brings us to the related news from International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM). Big Blue is turning the world on its ear with a new device that uses light to transfer data – but with a big twist.
See, IBM engineers found a way to combine optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip. This is the first time anyone has pulled this off using standard 90-nanometer chip making techniques.
They call the new process silicon nanophotonics. (Don’t let the name bother you. It’s the results we’re after.) And IBM says it could do for computer optics what transistors did for chips.
In other words, a veritable revolution.
Today, we can put billions of transistors on a single piece of silicon. This has allowed us to double computing power roughly every two years for decades. That in turn has driven the pace of innovation throughout the whole economy.
IBM’s process uses pulses of light to transfer data. Think of this as a superhighway for large volumes of information, everything from tracking hundreds of satellites to trading thousands of stocks at once. The company says the new process will move information quickly between computer chips used in servers, large data centers, and supercomputers.
“This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have an impact across a range of applications,” said John E. Kelly, IBM’s director of research.
At this point there is no “pure play” in this area of optical computing. IBM is a huge, $216-billion-cap company with hands in almost every segment of the computing market. It made waves last year when its Watson super computer beat humans on the quiz show Jeopardy.
But once IBM opens the market, smaller companies will get into this field and give investors more chances to profit from optical computing.
I’ll keep you in the loop.
And the Era of Radical Change will continue to bring us a steady stream of innovations that will line our pockets.