Ultra-powerful optical computers

New type of optical computing could solve highly complex problems that are out of reach for even the most powerful supercomputers

March 14, 2021
The Scitech

An important class of challenging computational problems, with applications in graph theory, neural networks, artificial intelligence and error-correcting codes can be solved by multiplying light signals, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge and Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia. In a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters, they propose a new type of computation that could revolutionise analogue computing by allowing for ultra-fast optical computers.

Optical or photonic computing uses photons produced by lasers or diodes for computation, as opposed to classical computers which use electrons. Since photons are essentially without mass and can travel faster than electrons, an optical computer would be superfast, energy-efficient and able to process information simultaneously through multiple temporal or spatial optical channels. The computing element in an optical computer – an alternative to the ones and zeroes of a digital computer – is represented by the continuous phase of the light signal, and the computation is normally achieved by adding two light waves coming from two different sources and then projecting the result onto ‘0’ or ‘1’ states. However, real life presents highly nonlinear problems, where multiple unknowns simultaneously change the values of other unknowns while interacting multiplicatively.

Now, Professor Natalia Berloff from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and PhD student Nikita Stroev from Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology have found that optical systems can combine light by multiplying the wave functions describing the light waves instead of adding them and may represent a different type of connections between the light waves.  “We found the key ingredient is how you couple the pulses with each other,” said Stroev. “If you get the coupling and light intensity right, the light multiplies, affecting the phases of the individual pulses, giving away the answer to the problem. This makes it possible to use light to solve nonlinear problems.” The multiplication of the wave functions to determine the phase of the light signal in each element of these optical systems comes from the nonlinearity that occurs naturally or is externally introduced into the system.

The authors have also suggested and implemented a way to guide the system trajectories towards the solution by temporarily changing the coupling strengths of the signals.

There are still many challenges to be met before optical computing can demonstrate its superiority in solving hard problems in comparison with modern electronic computers: noise reduction, error correction, improved scalability, guiding the system to the true best solution are among them.

(Source: University of Cambridge news release)