Light-based computers will be even more awesome than we thought

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Scientists have come up with an effective way of transferring data between computer chips using light instead of electricity. Not only does this specifies that computers will be able to transfer data much, much faster, it also means we could construct machineries that consume far less energy. We’re already capable of sending data in the form of photons at unbelievable speeds through the optical fibers that make up our entire Internet, but when this data enters into our computers, it has to slow down so it can be transformed into electrons and pressed through wires around our devices. This method isn't just slow, it's also requires a lot of energy, and it's accountable for making our computers so hot. One of the scientists, Jelena Vuckovic from Stanford University in the US, said in a news release. "Up to 80 percent of the microprocessor power is consumed by sending data over the wires,”
Image Credit: Stanford University

But even though engineers are getting very close to making computer chips that can process light, they’ve worked very hard to find an effective way to transfer that light across the thousands of different networks, known as interconnects, between them. In theory, light can be emitted between chips via silicon arrangements that curve it to the chosen location, but these are extremely difficult to build, and having to produce a new silicon structure to substitute every single wire inside just one computer could be next to impossible. Now a group of researchers from Stanford University has come up with a better solution, by creating an inverse design algorithm that tells them precisely how to build the silicon structures they need to achieve a desired task. They’ve at present used the algorithm to design a working optical circuit, and have made numerous copies in their lab. Reporting in Nature Photonics, the group of researchers has now confirmed that these devices worked flawlessly, in spite of minute imperfections in the structures.

So how precisely do you build a silicon interconnector? Fundamentally it includes layering slices of silicon that are so tinny that more than 20 of them could sit side-by-side in the diameter of a human hair. Light simply moves through silicon, but is also twists as it does so. By designing very accurate segments of silicon and coupling them together - according to the commands of the algorithm - the team are able to produce switches or channels that control the flow of photons, just like wires presently do with electrons.

The algorithm could also be used to find design solutions to numerous other communication complications - all a researcher needs to do is plug in their preferred outcome, and the algorithm will come up with a strategy. We're pretty eager to see what they do with this algorithm next.
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