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Photonic Processors: The Next Phase for Moore’s Law

By Dick Weisinger

Chip designers are beginning to consider the possibility of designing computers based on photons instead of electrons.

In 2018, scientists from three US universities designed a chip that uses photonic input and output transmission. The chip itself continues to use normal electronics to function. The hybrid photonic/electronic chip is a first step towards the use of photonics and attains data transmissions speeds of up to fifty times faster than conventional CPUs.

Vladimir Stojanović, professor at the University of California, said that “photonic specialized processors can save a tremendous amount of energy, improve response time and reduce data center traffic.”

The next step is to build processors based on photons. At the University of Texas Austin earlier this year researchers announced the creation of a photonics-based arithmetic logic unit. Ray Chen, computer scientist and lead researcher on the project, said that “our optical computing devices have demonstrated speed beyond state-of-the-art processors, using much less power with lower latency, which means you can build a much faster computer that is more energy-efficient.”

Another group from George Washington University replaced GPUs with something they’re calling photonic tensor cores that are able to process opitcal data two to three orders faster than standard GPUs.

Mario Miscuglio, assistant professor at George Washington University, said that “we found that integrated photonic platforms that integrate efficient optical memory can obtain the same operations as a tensor processing unit, but they consume a fraction of the power and have higher throughput and, when opportunely trained, can be used for performing inference at the speed of light. Photonic specialized processors can save a tremendous amount of energy, improve response time and reduce data center traffic.”

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