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Communications of the ACM


Photonic Processors Light the Way

electronic-photonic processor chip, illustration

Credit: Glenn J. Asakawa / University of Colorado

Ongoing advances in electronics and computing have introduced opportunities to achieve things that once seemed inconceivable: build autonomous machines, solve complex deep learning problems, and communicate instantaneously across the planet. Yet, for all the advances, today's systems—which rely on electronic processors—are grounded in a frustrating reality: the sheer physics of electrons limits their bandwidth and forces them to produce enormous heat, which means they draw vast amounts of energy.

As demand for fast and low-energy artificial intelligence (AI) grows, researchers are exploring ways to push beyond electrons and into the world of photons. They are replacing electronic processors with photonic designs that incorporate lasers and other light components. While there is skepticism among some observers that the technology can transform analog computing, researchers in the optical space are now building systems demonstrating significant benefits in AI and deep learning.


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