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How photonic components will change the way computers are built

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A researcher from HP Labs discusses how photonic interconnect components built on silicon substrates might change the way computers are built.

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Now that scientists have figured out how to build photonic interconnect components on silicon substrates — which could usher in a new wave of faster computers that consume less power — researchers at HP Labs are looking into how this technology could change the way computers are built in the future. According to researcher Moray McLaren, these components — which include modulators, detectors, waveguides, and filters — though talked about for years, have now become an essential technology. "We'll need to have optical interconnects to deliver these machines in the 2017-2019 timeframe," he explained.

McLaren will be discussing the future of these components at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference in Los Angeles next month, which will include a look at two potential futures for building computers. One commonly held belief views the interconnects as a "smarter wire" that will be able to transition from copper to optic once a certain distance threshold is exceeded, and because of this "people are contorting the way they build systems to use as many of the less expensive electronic connections as possible — and non-optimal wiring topologies." Meanwhile, the other potential future involves a complete rethinking of how computers are built, because optical communication is simply too different from electronic communication. Either way, it'll be at least a few years before we'll actually be able to reap the benefits of this new technology.