A Vision of Optical Computing for the World Beyond COVID-19

COVID-19

The world economy is in crisis. This is the time to act with big visions and bold action. 

Gerard Zytnicki

Gerard Zytnicki
CEO, Nonlinear Materials Corporation 
gerardz@nonlinearmaterials.com 
May 12, 2020 

A long-held dream for the telecom and internet industries has been to provide “everyone, everywhere” access to high-speed connectivity and cloud computing resources. Connecting eight billion people in almost 200 countries would be the single most powerful activity we could undertake to spur economic activity in the recovery from COVID-19.  

Networks are at the foundation of commerce, health, education, entertainment, socializing, and just about every other human activity imaginable. Expanding high-quality networks throughout the world offers the best route to rebounding quickly from the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.  

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed flaws throughout national and global infrastructure, and internet networks are no exception. With entire populations staying at home, internet traffic has been clogged with high-bandwidth streaming video1, video games, and videoconferences. Employees connecting through VPNs have traded business-class internet for residential-level service being shared with schoolchildren and furloughed workers. In response, telecom companies have been frantically adding capacity throughout their wired and wireless networks, and streaming video providers have dialed back their high-definition content. Yet, as the COVID crisis has demonstrated, as our needs increase, these measures will not be enough. 

Building a global network of sufficient scope and speed calls for a fundamental technology revolution. Despite the advances in semiconductor technology over recent decades, our current technology is insufficient to realize the vision of ubiquitous, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly connectivity. If we continue with the status quo, we’ll only have pockets of high-speed connectivity, creating a digital divide that makes both sides poorer.  

To make high-speed internet services available to billions of users, networks and cloud resources must be far cheaper to access, build, and run. The hardware must use far less energy, while supporting order-of-magnitude increases in bandwidth, storage, and processing power.  

That’s where optical computing comes in.  

Recent breakthroughs in Organic Electro-Optic (OEO) materials and nanoscale devices have enabled new designs for networking components with unrivaled performance and power efficiency. Prototype devices using OEO technology already run 10x faster than other optical networking technologies, 100x faster than standard microprocessors, and using 1000x less power than existing infrastructure. Such devices address the hard constraints in computing speed, network capacity, budgets, and power availability faced by internet backbone and cloud computing providers.  

Following the present pandemic, we expect society to respond with some combination of virus-hardened versions of existing cities, dispersal of populations to suburbs and rural areas, and radically new living and working arrangements. During the pandemic, we may have needed to work from home out of necessity, but these lessons can be applied in new and innovative ways to improve quality of life, cut transportation-related pollution, and alleviate cost concerns related to increasingly crowded and expensive cities. 

Optical computing offers the best possible approach for supporting a redistributed workforce with an advanced global telecom and internet infrastructure that provides worldwide high-speed access. This will establish the necessary foundation for an unparalleled economic recovery that will enable us to build a healthier, happier, and more humane world.  

The future of computing is optical. 

1 https://www.deccanherald.com/specials/coronavirus-effect-netflix-amazon-prime-video-and-others-to-cease-hd-content-streaming-815622.html

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