Light Gets Stored as Sound for the First Time Ever

Australian researchers just brought the world several steps closer to light-based computers. The team needed to slow down the speed of light just long enough to transfer data.

Scientists have just stored light-based information on a computer chip as a sound wave file. The team likens the feat to capturing lightning as thunder. This could mean the world just made a few giant steps toward light-based computers and light-speed data transfer. 

For decades, engineers looking to put light information on a microchip found themselves frustrated by light's speed. There have been attempts to speed up chips to process the light, but nothing seemed to be working. Researchers with the University of Sydney in Australia managed to achieve the improbable. They decided rather than try to speed up the processing of a chip, they could slow down the light and convert it to sound. 

"The information in our chip in acoustic form travels at a velocity five orders of magnitude slower than in the optical domain," said project supervisor Birgit Stiller. "It is like the difference between thunder and lightning."

Stiller worked with lead author Moritz Merklein to create a delay, a gap created from slowing down the light by using it as a sound wave. This delay lets the data get briefly stored just long enough for the chip to process and retrieve information. 

In effect, this could mean that computers can both interpret data delivered by light while also getting that information in a slow enough speed to do something with it. Tech companies have been fighting to perfect this technology for the better part of a decade, but have run into numerous roadblocks (particularly in the speed of light). Merklein, who is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, noted that his project might have helped solve those issues. 

"For [light-based computers] to become a commercial reality, photonic data on the chip needs to be slowed down so that they can be processed, routed, stored and accessed," said Merklein. 

Co-author Benjamin Eggleton said, "This is an important step forward in the field of optical information processing as this concept fulfills all requirements for current and future generation optical communication systems."

Light Gets Stored as Sound for the First Time Ever
Source: M. Merklein et al./Nature

Why Bother With Light-Based Computers?

Eggleton's thoughts might seem a bit optimistic, but he has every right to be. Computers working at the speed of light using the power of light could revolutionize computing. Light-based computing systems have the potential to work 20 times faster than the average laptop on the market. It increases bandwidth significantly. They won't exert heat. They won't drain battery systems. These advantages come because they theoretically transfer data via photons rather than electrons. 

Currently, IBM and Intel are two of the biggest corporate minds in the light-based computing game. Right now, scientists can code information onto photos with relative ease; that's how optical fibers work. But as the Australian team discovered, getting that information on a chip is a lot harder. 

The benefits of light-based computers seem both insanely practical yet too futuristic given the current state of a run-of-the-mill computer. Light-based computers could also improve the performance of Artificial Intelligence. Over the summer, researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a theoretical light-based computing world for deep learning technologies. Basically, the MIT team figured out that light-based data would keep our AI robots' heads from overheating. 

Now that researchers have managed to 'slow down' light long enough for us to reap the benefits of light-based computing, it could revolutionize the everyday technology at our fingertips. 

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