Computing at Light Speed: The World’s First Photonic Neural Network Has Arrived

Light-based computer chip could lead to advanced AI.

11. 21. 16 by Jess Vilvestre
X.Lin Design & Photography
Image by X.Lin Design & Photography

Brain-Like Computers

As developments are made in neural computing, we can continue to push artificial intelligence further. A fairly recent technology, neural networks have been taking over the world of data processing, giving machines advanced capabilities such as object recognition, face recognition, natural language processing, and machine translation.

These sound like simple things, but they were way out of reach for processors until scientists began to find way to make machines behave more like human brains in the way they learned and handled data. To do this, scientists have been focusing on building neuromorphic chips, circuits that operate in a similar fashion to neurons.

Now, a team at Princeton University has found a way to build a neuromorphic chip that uses light to mimic neurons in the brain, and their study has been detailed in Cornell University Library.

The Princeton University researchers developed the world’s first integrated silicon photonic neuromorphic chip. This optical computing device features 49 circular nodes etched into semiconductive silicon. Each of these “neuron-like” nodes works with a specific wavelength of light. The light rapidly circulates in the node, and when released, it affects the output of a laser. When the laser output returns to the nodes, it completes the circuit.


The researchers proved that the chip is capable of super-fast computing by demonstrating that it could crunch a mathematical differential equation 1,960 times more quickly than a typical central processing unit, which uses electrons.

Futuristic Devices and Machine Learning

The team at Princeton believes that their development can be easily adopted by the industry to bring optical computing into the mainstream for the first time. “Silicon photonic neural networks could represent first forays into a broader class of silicon photonic systems for scalable information processing,” researcher Alexander Tait told MIT Technology Review.

Optical computing and the ultrafast processing speeds it is capable of could be the driving force behind tomorrow’s machine learning tools. Algorithms that predict trends in the stock market, wearable tech that can detect diseases or mitigate conditions like visual impairment, super-smart drones that can improve agriculture…these could just be some of the many applications for optical computing.

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