An illustration of optical computing

The potential of optical computing for higher education

With the evolution of optical computing, also known as photonic computing, we can now transmit data via light, as opposed to the electronic circuits used in traditional computing.

Take Google Fiber, for example, which transmits information over fiber optic cables. Using light to transport data certainly has its advantages; among other things, it is faster and requires less energy. However, the main drawback of optical computing today is size.

“Transistors and other key components in modern computers and cell phones are tiny compared to optical components that carry information because of the current limit to which you can squeeze light,” says Sharon Weiss, professor of electrical engineering, from physics and materials science at Vanderbilt. University and director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

Currently, there are commercial products with photonic integrated circuits, or transceivers, that provide a “point of intersection between what you think of as traditional electronic computers and fiber optics. It really helps you transfer data more efficiently. information from computer to computer,” says Weiss.

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Hybrid approach uses optics as needed without compromising size

Given the current challenge, what potential does optical computing have to disrupt traditional computing?

In the near-term future of optical computing, Weiss sees a hybrid solution that maintains the current infrastructure of electronics while using optics where it makes sense to speed up information transfer and reduce energy consumption.

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“I think there will be optical components on the chip, but it certainly won’t replace all of the electrical components,” she says. “That’s where the interesting research is – to figure out how far light penetration is, where it makes sense, and the downsides of size scale.”

Optical computing has higher educational potential

Looking to the future, Weiss and his team have also investigated various optical component designs that compress light and energy into extremely small regions with very high energy density. This means that the energy cost to turn the light on and off can be coded into ones and zeros, which would greatly reduce the amount of light or energy needed to turn the light on and off.

$1.1 billion

The value of the global photonic integrated circuits market in 2021

Source: Future Market Insights, “Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC) Market Overview (2022-2032)”, July 2022

As for higher education, Weiss believes that optical computing will encourage engineering students to study photonics. With the growing number of products in development, as well as those already on the market that integrate optics with electronics, there is a demand for engineers with additional training in optical computing.

To that end, Vanderbilt recently formed a partnership with Keysight Technologies, which manufactures electronic test and measurement equipment, to provide undergraduate students with training in advanced photonic laboratory instrumentation.

“The winds are definitely blowing in the direction of increased education for undergraduates and the advancement of graduate research,” says Weiss.

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