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Computing at the Speed of Light

Computing at the Speed of Light

By Vignesh Ramachandran

SourceRalf Hiemisch/Getty


Because one day, your computer might not just send data as fast as light — it could actually use light to send data.

By Vignesh Ramachandran

So you think your shiny new MacBook Pro with its so-called “hyper-threading” i7 processor is superfast? Wait until light starts beaming data through your computer.

The scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Groups of researchers around the world are pushing more aggressively into the world of “supercomputing” by trying to get these machines moving closer to the speed of light. At Stanford University, engineers recently said they had built a device that could split and then bend a beam of light, which might help in creating computer components that are able to connect with light, instead of wires. Meanwhile, in the U.K., researchers have developed a new kind of glass material that can transport information faster within a computer, removing data-crunching bottlenecks and improving processing speed.

Even industry heavyweights like Intel are getting into the game. The 46-year-old company has developed “Silicon Photonics Technology” that can help send data at incredibly fast speeds across thin optical fibers, instead of over more sluggish copper cables. 

Of course, today’s computers are already pretty darn quick, and supercomputers have certainly come a long way. The first ones that Nick Nystrom, the director of strategic applications at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, worked with had a little less power than the latest iPhone. Supercomputers today are estimated to be 500,000 times faster than an iPhone 6 when it comes to crunching data that’s numerically intensive. 

But according to IBM, 90 percent of the data in the world has been created in just the last two years, and analyzing different groups of information takes even more serious computing power. So what kinds of applications could a new generation of supercomputers handle? Crunching weather data, for one, while also cross-referencing farm yields and biological data on insects to gain some new insights about our environment — all at the same time. Or perhaps finding the cause of cancer genomics and chronic diseases, instead of only what’s correlated with either, says Nystrom.

The more computing power we have, the better we are at doing things.

Still not convinced? Industry experts say higher processing speeds could mean the difference between watching buffered video and streaming the highest-quality clips with absolutely no delay, meaning you’d truly see something live. Another possible benefit: Light would be far more energy efficient on a laptop, so a computer could possibly last months on a single battery before it would need to be recharged. Right now, all the rage seems to be over a battery that can keep a laptop chugging along for a whole two days. Whoop-de-do. 

The problem with many of today’s computers, experts say, is the way they send signals. Recall Aesop’s famous fable about the tortoise and the hare. Most modern-day machines pass data through electric transmission — i.e., the tortoise.  Optical transmission that uses light, by comparison, is like a hare — on speed. And in this version of the story, the hare comes out on top.

Indeed, moving to light “would be like going from sending a letter by post … to emailing,” says Richard Curry, project leader at the University of Surrey, which, along with the University of Cambridge and University of Southampton, is working on the new glass material to speed up data transfers. “The more computing power we have,” adds Curry, “the better we are at doing things.”

The challenge is that it’s not such an easy transition to just start using optical technology. It turns out, light doesn’t interact with many materials in the way people want it to, Curry says, though his team has discovered a material that allows them to control light. (It involves a complicated process of changing the properties of a glass material that is found in things like CDs and DVDs, but we won’t bore you with the details.)

Just don’t start lining up at the Apple Store quite yet. Even if you consider Moore’s Law the idea that computer processing power doubles about every two years — most of these new developments are still in their early stages, warns Connie Chang-Hasnain, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. For his team’s part, Surrey’s Curry warns that their optical technology is at least 10 years away from where consumers will see a significant change.

Indeed, for most of us, with our addiction to Gmail and crazy cat videos, it’s hard to imagine that computing really could get that much faster. Then again, we probably said the same thing a decade ago — yes, it’s already been that long — when Motorola unveiled its speedy little “superthin” Razr cellphone.


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