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A New Optical Chip Makes Light Work of Optimization Problems

Hewlett Packard Labs has developed a complex processor that uses light to outperform regular chips on tasks like the traveling salesman problem.
January 3, 2017

As Moore’s Law stutters, computing companies are looking to develop ways to calculate using light rather than electrons. Now researchers at Hewlett Packard Labs have built one of the most complex optical chips yet, and claim that it could be used to perform optimization tasks more efficiently than regular hardware.

 IEEE Spectrum reports that the team has traded electrons for light beams to build a device that features 1,052 optical components that all work together to crunch numbers.The researchers claim that the approach can be used to identify solutions to complex optimization problems more efficiently than normal chips. As an example, the team says that it will be able to crunch through the traveling salesman problem—a classic mathematical challenge that demands the calculation of the most efficient route between a number of points—far faster than its rivals.

Other optical computing techniques promise similar advantages. As we recently reported, laser-based computing approaches are being used to analyze genetic data and intelligently compress information faster than normal computers. Along with their speed gains, light-based chips could also use less energy.

Such advantages explain why chip giants like Intel are also working out how to build optical computing hardware. The Hewlett Packard Labs creation is another milepost on the road to making lighter work of the problem.

(Read more: IEEE Spectrum, “Intel Tries to Rearchitect the Computer—and Itself,” “Light Chips Could Mean More Energy-Efficient Data Centers,” “Computing with Lasers Could Power Up Genomics and AI”)

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