Last week, scientists at Intel announced that they had taken a significant step toward coupling communications and computing through the creation of a silicon device that encodes light like electricity. The optical modulator, which was described in the journal Nature, put a phase shift into a previously split beam of light. When the beams of light were recombined, the shift encoded the ones and zeros of basic data transmission upon it. If integrated into a network, the modulator would allow a stream of information to be sent long distances — at literally the speed of light — and then decoded for use.
Fiber optic networks work in same way, but require expensive, exotic materials for the signal to be transmitted. Another disadvantage is that the outputs of optic data channels must be precisely aligned with inputs of data channels into other devices or the signal is lost.
Scientists have been experimenting with silicon-based optical devices since the mid-1980s. Progress had been relatively slow, since other materials are better at transferring optical signals. Before last week’s announcement, the fastest silicon-based modulator went at a speed of about 20 million cycles per second (20 MHz). The new modulator transfers data 50 times faster — about 1 billion cycles per second (1 GHz). That is likely to be only the beginning — Intel scientists are already planning faster devices.
The modulators will be one component of what may eventually become entire optical networks built on silicon. As a Perspective article, “The optical age of silicon” that accompanied the Nature paper, noted, “The difficulties surrounding the optical performance of silicon seem to be being demolished one by one.” For instance, silicon light-emitting devices are expected on the market soon. Intel demonstrated the potential of such technologies to transmit an entire movie in high-definition video over a five-mile coil of fiber optic cable at its ongoing developer forum last week.
The coupling of computing and communications will be tied to other ongoing developments in nano-electronics, ultimately resulting in larger and larger amounts of data being sent to smaller and smaller devices at lower and lower costs. There are a wide range of potential applications, from machines with parts in different locations to interactive television systems, which allow sporting events to be viewed from any angle desired.
Such products are likely to hit the market by the end of the decade, once technical hurdles are overcome. Invention, innovation, employment, production, profits: The cycle of prosperity continues, notwithstanding the economic gibberish being spread by politicians and other demagogues during this election year.