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Wow: Intel Merges Fiber Optics and Silicon

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In a paper to be published today in the journal Nature, Intel scientists say they have made silicon chips that can switch light like electricity, merging computing and communications:

    The invention demonstrates for the first time, Intel researchers said, that ultrahigh-speed fiberoptic equipment can be produced at personal computer industry prices. As the costs of communicating between computers and chips falls, the barrier to building fundamentally new kinds of computers not limited by physical distance should become a reality, experts said.

    ….It will free computer designers to think about the systems they create in new ways, making it possible to conceive of machines that are not located in a single physical place, according to scientists and industry executives. It will also make possible a new class of computing applications based on the possibility of transmitting high-definition video and images hundreds or even thousands of times faster than possible on today’s Internet.

    “Before, there were two worlds – computing and communications,” said Alan Huang, a former Bell Labs physicist, who has founded the Terabit Corporation, an optical networking company in Menlo Park, Calif. “Now they will be the same and we will have powerful computers everywhere.”

    One potential application, he said, would be an interactive digital television system allowing viewers to watch a sporting event from multiple angles, moving the point of view at will while the game is being played. With only a limited number of digital cameras, it might be possible to synthesize a virtual moveable seat any place in the stadium. Such a feature exists currently in video games, but it is far beyond the capacity of today’s digital television transmission systems.

    ….”This opens up whole new areas for Intel,” said Mario Paniccia, a an Intel physicist, who started the previously secret Intel research program to explore the possibility of using standard semiconductor parts to build optical networks. “We’re trying to siliconize photonics.”

    The device Intel has built is the prototype of a high-speed silicon optical modulator that the company has now pushed above two billion bits per second at a lab near its headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. The modulator makes it possible to switch off and on a tiny laser beam and direct it into an ultrathin glass fiber. Although the technical report in Nature focuses on the modulator, which is only one component of a networking system, Intel plans on demonstrating a working system transmitting a movie in high-definition television over a five-mile coil of fiberoptic cable next week at its annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. [NY Times]

With this kind of profound breakthrough you would think they could come up with something better than fast movies and angle options for sporting events, but they have to start somewhere and this certainly seems to be a huge step toward ubiquitous hig-powered computing.

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