Photonic computing might sound like something out of Star Trek, but it’s a very real technology based on sound physics. It has been with us in various forms of electronics, but its potential is finally being realized to revolutionize complex and intensive computing systems. Below, we’ll dig into what precisely photonic computing is, its impact, and some of the top startups in the field to watch.
What is Photonic computing?
Photonic computing, or optical computing, is the science of computers that use light signals instead of electric signals to function. These signals consist of photons in either the visible light or infrared (IR) spectrum.
Conventional computers transmit information by sending electronic signals that turn transistors on or off due to fluctuations in the current. These on/off states correspond to 1s and 0s, the “language” of computers. Photonic computers use the same basic principle, but with light beams where a 1 is when light is present, and a 0 is when it’s not. For example, it’s similar to the difference between conventional copper cable and fiber-optic network connections.
Photonic computing has several benefits over traditional electronic computers. Firstly, light-based signals generate far less heat than electronic signals. This means that you wouldn’t have to worry about a computer overheating, and you could make smaller chips that work harder.
Secondly, light beams have zero interference, which means they can pass through each other without distorting each other’s signals. This also allows for the design of smaller computer chips with more efficient designs.
Thirdly, light signals travel at the speed of light, while electronic signals travel about 10% of that. This has always been a great limiter on the potential of electronic computers that can’t be overcome. Photonic computers, therefore, have the potential to operate at unimaginably fast speeds compared to computers today.
How will it change business and the world?
The field of photonic computing is still in a very nascent stage. Although the underlying promise of the technology is clear, the tangible benefits it will have to businesses may be less so.
Photonics, and photonic computing, can bring significant changes in the following fields:
● Health: Photonics can be used to detect diseases in a fast, accurate, and non-invasive way. Photonics used in biological and medical fields is also called Biophotonics. It could open doors for new forms of prevention, detection, and treatment.
● Lighting and energy savings: The heat generated by electronic chips leads to higher energy use because of the extra resistance and the additional cooling needed. Photonic computers will generally be more energy-efficient and make better ways of preserving energy possible.
● Broadband internet: The benefits of photonics will also make it easier to improve and run efficient broadband internet infrastructure. Not to mention accelerate the speed of communication.
● Safety and security: Photonic devices can employ new and improved security verification methods, such as biometrics, contactless sensors, surveillance systems, and deep penetration scanners. They can also be used in safety applications to scan for structural weaknesses or faults that are otherwise impossible.
● Manufacturing: Laser processing is becoming an increasingly popular and valuable tool for high-quality, high-precision manufacturing. They have the potential to make highly customizable and flexible production processes resource-efficient and economically viable.
What startups are in this field?
While the photonic computing field is new, it’s experiencing a boom in interest from all corners. Many startups (and existing enterprises) are looking to make their mark in this field and produce breakthroughs in developing this promising technology. Below, we’ll look at two of the most promising startups in this exciting field:
Most businesses in the optic computing space are looking to develop small, noisy systems that might have use cases in highly specialized niches. However, PsiQuantum’s end goal is a large-scale, error-corrected, general-purpose quantum computer. Also, PsiQuantum has set itself the ambitious target of developing a million-qubit photonic quantum computer that can outperform any conventional supercomputer in the world.
In 2021, PsiQuantum received $450 million in Series D, bringing its total investments to $665 million. The company had its $13.5 million Series A funding back in 2106.
Salience Labs calls itself a team of physicists, engineers, and coders building a new type of chip: AI chips using photonic computing technology. The team has already designed a massively parallel, ultra-high throughput tensor processing chip that it hopes will lead to exponential advances in the field of AI computing.
This Oxford-based spin-out of Oxford University and the University of Münster was founded in 2021 and has already secured $11.5 million in seed funding.
Is the Future Photonic?
Although it sounds near-futuristic, photonic computing has been around since 1962 with the invention of the first semiconductor laser diode. Photonics is already everywhere around us but in highly specialized applications and devices. Standalone, working photonic computing systems already exist today, albeit in highly primitive, experimental, or specialized forms.
However, we have raised a stage of maturity where the real possibilities are becoming apparent. In a way, photonics in and of itself is not revolutionary, but it’s the possible implications it can have on other fields that drive its true potential:
● AI chips - As the name implies, an AI chip is specifically designed for high efficiency and speed for AI-specific calculations.
● Analogue AI - AI computing systems where processing can take place in the memory, i.e., data can be processed in the same location it’s stored.
● Silicon quantum dot computing - Quantum computing is the next big thing in the computing world, and most are already based on photonic systems.
As you can see, AI is one field that stands to massively benefit from the rise in photonic computing due to its efficiency and speed at carrying out highly complex computational operations. Photonics is also the frontrunner as a basis for developing quantum computers, the next giant leap in supercomputer capabilities.
An insatiable Need for Faster Computing
As we all know, the rapid pace of technological advancement has created an insatiable need for faster and more efficient computing systems. Considering that these are exact ways in which photonic computing will revolutionize the computing industry, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over.
Topic: Tech Startups