When Worlds Collide...Again.
Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group
isn't about asteroid threats to Earth, or about H. G. Wells'
destructive machines invading from Mars (although it is poetic
that his vision, in reverse, is now taking place as our robotic
Rovers poke, prod, drill, and otherwise defile the Martian
plains.) Instead, this is about two technological
worlds that, like the Earth and Mars, have remained largely
separate in their individual journeys--until now.
we explore how this "collision" is about
to change all the rules--again.
begin with a brief history of each world:
House That Moore Built' (Intel's Gordon Moore's early observation
and still-accurate trend line that the number of transistors
on a chip would double about every 18 months while the price
remained stable) has increasingly, utterly, redefined how
we live, work, and play for more than three decades.
semiconductor industry has become incredibly skilled at herding
electrons ever-faster, through ever-smaller circuitry that
remembers or executes the seemingly simple choice of "one
or zero" -- but at the rate of billions of times each
second. Taken en mass, these simple operations drive almost
every aspect of modern business and entertainment. In the
case of pacemakers and related assistive medical devices,
these patterns of ones and zeros even drive our very lives!
this is good (mostly). Despite the consistent naysayers and
critics who have foretold the end of the era of Moore, innovative
scientists and engineers have continued to find ways past,
around, or through every technological roadblock that has
have tamed and trained our electrons well, even though they
do suffer from problems such as generating heat as they work,
or that their circuits have the potential for information
loss due to noise, or that some electrons, in some circuits,
have the poor manners of "tunneling" where they
should not go.
our machines are now very "smart" (note that I didn't
say "intelligent"), in that they carry out very
complex tasks under our control, and in some cases autonomously.
left to themselves (literally), these incredibly useful computers
might never have changed so many aspects of our world--computers
might have remained in the province of corporate "glass
houses" and hobbyists' garages. It took a very different
kind of innovation, a "hijacking" if you will of
a very different field, to help computers truly "change
all the rules."
second industry is the well-established world of telecommunications,
embodied by The Phone Company of thirty years ago. Initially,
computers began connecting to each other using electrons over
wires within a computer room. Shortly thereafter, they broke
the computer room constraints by using modems to convert their
bits of information into audible sounds -- the only thing
that the telephone network could carry--to communicate point-to-point
with other computers. As crude, as cumbersome, and as slow
as those first 110 bits (NOT kilobits
or megabits) per second modems were,
they brought these infant computers together and taught them
to "share" their "information toys."
too proved to be a good thing, especially as the
Internet taught computers to speak a common, no longer "point-to-point"
tongue for sharing. Computer users recognized the incredibly-growing
value of the Internet as each new computer joined-in
Even end-users realized the benefits of bypassing the
harshly-regulated and technologically limited "audio-only"
constraints of the traditional telephone network; hence the
growing adoption of "cable," DSL, and other "broadband"
connections. Each computer began sharing more, and sharing
became the watchword, and "fiber" the deliverer.
These hair-thin, miles-long strands of glass could carry the
same "ones and zeros" of information as our trusty
electrons did over wires, but in the form of photons (tiny
"particles" or "wavelets" of pure light)
that didn't suffer from the effects of electrons passing through
miles of wire. Especially with developments like Dense Wavelength
Division Multiplexing (DWDM) which allowed many "colors"
of light within a single fiber to each carry their own ultra-fast
information stream, bandwidth became free (relatively),
and innovation blossomed into the World Wide Web that rapidly
became an integral part of business and society.
thing is, we ended up with two complementary but completely
separate technologies: the ultra flexible and controllable
world of electrons (computing), and the ultra fast, secure,
ever more capable, yet very "dumb," world of photons
electron-driven information had to be turned into photons
for their long and speedy trips through fibers. But the photons
had to then be re-converted back into electrons at each way-station
or "junction point" along the fiber network mesh,
because only in their electron form could the individual packets
of information be read and switched onto the correct path
for the next stage of their journey! Then at each subsequent
junction point the photons were again turned into electrons,
routing decisions were made, and the electrons yet again turned
into photons to enter the next fiber leg. Finally, at the
receiving end, the photons had to once more be converted back
into electrons so that the information packets could be acted
upon by the receiving "electrons-only-please" computers.
If this seems cumbersome and expensive, it is.
of this back and forth conversion between electrons and photons
stemmed from the fact that common and inexpensive silicon
chips could only deal with electrons and not with photons.
This is also the limitation that has generally prevented computers
from making use of photons' desirable characteristics within
their own logic circuitry, even as some people believe that
our ever-smaller chips are approaching certain physical limits
where electrons fear to tread.
remained the (general) status quo until Feb. 12, 2004.
recent announcement and demonstration from Intel, however,
may presage another "merging" that may prove even
more powerful, and more far-reaching,
than the previous merger of computing and telecommunications
-- because this "merger" breaks the barrier that
has been keeping electrons and photons from coexisting and
working together in the same relatively inexpensive silicon
Intel has come up with a way to create "photon switches"
on standard silicon chips (rather than on esoteric and very
expensive chips required previously) to work with photon ones
and zeros. And that switching of ones and zeros is essentially
what's at the heart of the millions of "electron switches,"
better known as transistors, that have enabled the computer
new chips can process these photons at speeds faster than
a billion bits per second (one gigahertz), which is 50-times
faster than was previously possible on standard silicon chips.
to Intel's senior VP and Chief Technology Officer, Patrick
is a significant step toward building optical devices that
move data around inside a computer at the speed of light...
It is the kind of breakthrough that ripples across an industry
over time enabling other new devices and applications. It
could help make the Internet run faster, build much faster
high-performance computers and enable high bandwidth applications
like ultra-high-definition displays or vision recognition
able to rapidly encode and decode ones and zeros into photons
within commodity chips; to be able to carry vast amounts of
information on single optical paths within a chip; and to
be able to control and "switch" those photons in
the same manner as we have been doing with electrons, portend
a vast new playground for circuit designers. As well as for
many future generations of electro-optical, and perhaps eventually
purely optical, computers.
this is just the beginning. Researchers believe they may eventually
be able to scale-up the speed of on-chip photonic switching
by another ten times (to 10 gigahertz per second). And that's
only today's expectations.
might this affect your future computer? For just one example,
imagine computer busses that shuttle data around, not at today's
speeds of a "mere" few hundreds of megabits/second,
but at gigabits/second! And that suggests enormous increases
of commodity computing power that will be able to take on
previously impossible challenges.
may sound like an interesting, although primarily technical
breakthrough, but to consider it provincially as "technical"
would be similar to those folks who felt the same way about
semiconductors, computers, and the global Internet. As we've
seen historically in these fields and others, any time that
technological advances occur on a rapid and continuing basis,
which seems likely to also be the case for silicon photonics,
the results can and do reshape almost every element of our
lives and our businesses and our countries.
how you did business only twenty-three years ago as the IBM
PC was delivered, whirring and beeping, into our world --
to how you do business today. And consider how our computers,
plus the Internet, have globalized commerce, entertainment,
communications, and far more: fortunes have been made (and
lost); entire entrenched industries at the pinnacle of their
decades-long successes have been marginalized; jobs and paychecks
now move at the speed of light across national and geographic
boundaries, and GNPs have danced to these technological tunes.
happened before, and major technological watersheds like silicon
photonics may prove to make it happen again.
greatest danger to each of us lies in ignoring what's happening;
in believing that these changes won't be important to our
business (or to us ); and in staying our historic
courses. That course leads to opening the doors
of opportunity to nimble young competitors who may not yet
repurpose a couple of currently popular phrases, we should
each "be technologically vigilant" in a world of
exponential technological growth, because that keeps the current
technological/business/societal "status quo" at
other words, "Don't Blink!"
This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography
of Jeff Harrow can be found at our main Commentary
page. Other essays written by Jeff Harrow can be found at
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© 2004, Jeffrey Harrow,
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