Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Tuesday, 13 November 2007
Future directions in computing



Computers exploit the movement or accumulation of electrons to do useful calculations. These movements down tiny wires are the reason why PCs become so hot.

Fibre optics
Optics are already used to transfer data over the internet

"We are dissipating huge amounts of power in chips right now," said Professor Stan Williams of computer firm Hewlett Packard.

And the problem will get worse as the components become smaller, making chips even more inefficient, he said.

"If we could find new ways of moving information around a chip, we could significantly reduce the amount of power that is dissipated."

A potential solution would be to use particles of light - photons - instead of electrons to move information around and between chips.

"Electrons will still be doing the computing but photons will be doing the communicating," he said.

"It sounds a little bit complex but you find that that baton pass [of data between the electrons and photons] can be far more efficient, in terms of electrical power required than just using electrons."

It is similar to the technology that is used to move data around the internet today but at a much smaller scale.

The technology could be key for transferring data between massively multiple core chips - devices with several linked computing engines.

But some researchers would ultimately like to skip this baton pass and use photons to manipulate and store data, rather than just transmit it.

Experiments are going on in academic institutions, firms such as IBM and even the American space agency Nasa. Several of the individual components needed to build an optical computer have been demonstrated and even put together into a working machine.

However, it may be some time before optical components compete with silicon because of a fundamental barrier.

"The reason it is not in circuits today is essentially cost," said Professor Williams.




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