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Fantastic Light

From the editor in chief

Let there be light,” a voice said. And there was light. At least there was in part of the telecommunications network backbone-the many-headed beast that delivers our telephone, fax and Internet services. The problem is that fiber optics have thus far been installed in only part of the system. As soon as the light reaches the big network hubs where it is switched, the signal must be converted to electrons. Electronic switches are bulky, expensive and, by the standards of light-speed, slow. But until now, there haven’t been any optical switches small and fast enough to replace them. This bottleneck is going to become tighter and tighter as our appetite for big-bandwidth applications such as video-on-demand grows.

It’s obvious that whoever develops the first reliable all-optical switch is going to cash in. Which is why Lucent, Nortel, Agilent, Corning and a host of startups are hustling to make optical switches. The first commercial versions are reaching the market now-and the markets are taking notice. The day Agilent unveiled its prototype optical switch, the company’s stock rose by 47 percent.

TR readers should take note that this exuberance, unlike the dot-com mania, is not irrational. Indeed, the optical switches being developed for telecommunications are only the first step in the “Microphotonics Revolution,” as Peter Fairley reports. After breaking the bottleneck in the telecom backbone, the next step is likely to be extending optical switching to the routers that send our e-mail hither and yon. The result: an all-optical Internet significantly faster than the one we know.

After that, the changes are likely to be on a smaller scale: inside your computer. Over the last couple of decades the processing units inside computers have gained so much speed that they’re outrunning the capacity of the wires connecting them to their memory units. These “interconnects” have now become a bottleneck not unlike the one in the telecommunications system. And the solution may be the same: replace electrons with photons. A further wave of the Microphotonics Revolution could be a healthy dose of optical communication injected into the computer itself, with attendant benefits in speed.

We think the Microphotonics Revolution is a key area to watch in the next decade, and you can be sure that as the revolution progresses, Technology Review will give you a close-up view. As Fairley has done in his article, we will continue to identify the main technologies, tell you the most important corporate and academic players, and lay out a timescale for specific developments. More light!

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