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Communications of the ACM


Still Seeking the Optical Transistor

test chip with electrical and optical components

A test chip developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, which monolithically integrates electrical and optical components.

Credit: Vladimir Stojanovic, Rajeev Ram, Milos Popovic / MIT

It's an intriguing idea: a transistor that uses photons of light to perform computations, instead of the electrons used today. "By the end of the decade, supercomputers could be using more light, or 'photonic,' components than electronic, and may run at least 100 times faster than today's generation," said Alan Huang of Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ.

However, that quote was found in an Associated Press story from 1990, and the intervening quarter-century has not been kind to that bold projection (for one thing, Bell Labs closed its Holmdel site in 2006). The major reason, of course, is that electronics have continued to improve exponentially according to Moore's Law, leaving optical transistors and other once-promising alternatives eating their dust. By the year 2000, computer clock rates had indeed increased by nearly a factor of 100, but without any help from optical transistors.


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