Skip to main content

Photonic Computer - a "supercharged GPU" with very low energy consumption

Yes, we all wish for Quantum Computers... but in the meantime we need something here and now!  Could Photonic Computers fit that role?

Just about everyone has heard of fiber optics – using light for data transmission but did you know that light can also be used for computing?

There's a new commercial product expected for early next year (2022).

I contacted the CEO, Nicholas Harris, of a 4-y.o. startup, Lightmatter, interviewed in April 2021 here.

Photonic computers, at least in their first commercial appearance, are essentially accelerator cards for Linear Algebra - and so of special interest for Machine Learning and some types of simulations.
 
 Their claims are remarkable:

  • 10X faster than some of the best GPUs
  • using 90% less energy
  • can be used with existing software stacks, such as TensorFlow
  • commercially available early next year (2022)
  • a lot of future growth, as additional wavelengths of light get used in parallel

My own interest is primarily for Machine Learning, Neurocomputing and Systems Biology.   In particular, what will we use to power what may very well be the immense computing needed to advance Longevity Science?

Lightmatter, a Photonic Computer pioneer

According to this May 2021 article from TechCrunch, Lightmatter has raised a total of $113 million and has 70 employees.

On his LinkedIn, the company's CEO says:

During my time at MIT as a PhD student and post-doctoral fellow, I explored what may become the ultimate tool for understanding the exquisite details of our universe: quantum computers. Quantum computing is profoundly exciting, but supporting hardware technologies are not ready yet.
I've developed a level of expertise in designing components and systems that create, processes, and detect light and what I've been able to build leads me to believe that the next step in the evolution of computing is all about light.
I founded Lightmatter with a mission of creating photonic computers and new ways for chips to communicate.

Salient points from the more recent Aug. 2021 interview:

  • Lightmatter got a new round of funding, $70 million in E series; among the investors is Google
  • Commercial availability is expected for the coming year (2022)
  • It seems doable in the near future to use around 16-32 wavelength of light, for enhanced parallelism

Other Companies 

As of Sep. 2021, no other company seems as close to the market as Lighmatter.  But it may be good to keep an eye out for Lightelligence.ai, started by MIT postdoc Yichen Shen; here's a brief May 2021 interview of him.
Another company on my radar is a small Israel firm, CogniFiber, founded by Eyal Cohen.  They have plans to roll out their first products in early 2023.

Background on Photonic Computers

If you want a simple intro to Photonic Computers, I recommend this Apr. 2021 article in Forbes.

For an in-depth intro to Photonic ICs and Programmable Photonics, there's a great set of 2021 workshops from Wim Bogaerts, a professor in a research group at Ghent University, Belgium.

I recommend starting with Photonic ICs, Silicon Photonics & Programmable Photonics  (1/2021).  Here are a couple of screen shots from it:

Encoding information in light beams

Photonic Integration


And here are a few screen shots from Programmable Photonics (4/2021), which I think is an excellent to-watch-next workshop:

Large-scale Silicon Photonic

General-Purpose Programmable PIC (photonic integrated circuit) 


Matrix-vector product




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Graph Databases (Neo4j) - a revolution in modeling the real world!

(UPDATED 9/2022) - I was "married" to Relational Databases for many years... and it was a good "relationship" full of love and productivity - but SOMETHING WAS MISSING! Let me backtrack.   In college, I got a hint of the "pre-relational database" days...  Mercifully, that was largely before my time, but  - primarily through a class - I got a taste of what the world was like before relational databases.  It's an understatement to say: YUCK! Gratitude for the power and convenience of Relational Databases and SQL - and relief at having narrowly averted life before it! - made me an instant mega-fan of that technology.  And for many years I held various jobs that, directly or indirectly, made use of MySQL and other relational databases - whether as a Database Administrator, Full-Stack Developer, Data Scientist, CTO or various other roles. But there were thorns in the otherwise happy relationship The root cause: THE REAL WORLD DOES NOT REALLY RESEMBLE THE

D3 Visualization with Vue.js : a powerful alliance (when done right!)

[UPDATED MAY 2022]  D3.js is a very powerful visualization tool, especially for specialized/custom needs...  On the flip side, it's rather hard to use - with a steep learning curve. Even worse if one also wants interactivity ! But why is D3 so hard/clunky to use?  And what can be done about it? Spoiler alert: Vue.js (or other modern front-end framework) to the rescue - if done right... All code in the examples is available in this GitHub repository . The Root of the Problem In a nutshell, what makes D3 awkward to use is that, for historical reasons, it tries to do too much : most painfully, it uses an old way to do direct DOM manipulation (i.e. restructuring the page layout) - an operation that nowadays is superbly handled in a far more friendly way by modern front-end frameworks, such as Vue.js Document Object Model ( DOM ) is a programming interface for web documents.  In simple terms, it's the structure of the elements on a web page (text, images, etc.) Let the front-e

A "Seismic Shift" in Longevity Science : Mainstream Acceptance + Large Funding

"You are incredibly prescient!"   I woke up to those words from a former colleague on Jan. 19, 2022: the bombshell announcement that the Chief Science Officer of pharma giant GSK, where I worked until recently, will become the CEO at the new, $3 BILLION longevity science company Altos (presumably also funded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos.) Big Pharma is at long last embracing Longevity Science. The corollary: longevity science is entering Mainstream (with capital "M") But let me backtrack... The Decade of Longevity Science When Harvard professor David Sinclair declared the 2020's to be the " decade of the paradigm shift about age reversal ", one could perhaps be dismissive of it as just an outburst of enthusiasm... But in the past couple of years, we're seeing strong evidence that his forecast is right on the mark! While I worked at GlaxoSmithKline - a giant, top-10, pharma company - I vigorously advocated forming a Longevity Science dept., and sp

Life123 : Quantitative Modeling of Biological Systems

(UPDATED 8/2022) - Are we ready to embark on a next-generation detailed quantitative modeling of complex biological systems , including whole-cell simulations?  An anticipated up-jump in computing power may be imminent from Photonics computers (which I discuss here ), and GPU's are rapidly gaining power as well...  Are we in ready state to put existing - and upcoming - power to good use? This is a manifest, and a call to action What's Life123? It's about detailed quantitative modeling of biological systems in 1-D, 2-D and full 3-D, as well as a multi-faceted software platform for doing so. What's (pseudo-)1D?  For now, let's say it's like the inside of a long, thin tube - with no interactions with the tube.  Likewise, (pseudo-)2D can be thought of as a Petri dish, with no interactions with the lid or the bottom. Website : https://life123.science A purposeful decision to also utilize 1D and 2D But why?  Yes, it's in part about "walk before you run&quo

Online Courses: (Often) Free and Just Awesome!

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” -Socrates.  [UPDATED Mar. 2021] Acquiring knowledge has been a hobby of mine since 4th grade, so it's no surprise that I'm the proverbial "kid in the candy store" when it comes to online courses!   As of writing, I have followed over 20 so far, and trying to decide what the next one will be... Utopia or Dystopia? You ever find yourself imagining the future, and wondering whether it'll turn out to be “utopian” or “dystopian”? Well, the state of higher education in the United States is decisively dystopian , with its absurdly ballooned costs and runaway student loans (a “bubble” that may burst sooner or later, mark my words!),  BUT there’s a counterpoint that is decisively utopian , namely the explosive rise of free online courses 😊 Here’s a brief 2012 Ted talk about the rise of free online courses , dated but still of interest. The gist of that TED talk is that online learning has com

Multimedia Knowledge Representation and Management : "Brain Annex"

 (Updated Feb. 2022) Wouldn't it be fantastic to have a "butler" to help us as we constantly face drowning in information? That need was crushingly pressing for me , as a polymath with a thirst for knowledge in several fields, not to mention numerous very technical jobs over the years, several complex research projects, old notes from college and grad school, an endless stream of online courses I take , a tech startup I founded and used to run, the many conferences I attend, life in general, and even hobbies that tend to generate abundant information (such as flying airplanes and studying multiple foreign languages!)   I was immensely eager for some sort of powerful assistance, something so helpful that I could poetically describe as an " annex " to my brain.. In this blog entry, I'll describe how deep frustration with existing software tools led to the start of the open-source BrainAnnex.org project, a web-based knowledge representation and manageme

Anti-Aging Research: Science, not Hype

Last updated November 2021 Q: "How is aging a disease?" A: "It's a dynamic system that veers away from its homeostasis (normal equilibrium point): hence a form of slow-progressing illness. Labeling it as 'natural' is a surrender to our traditional state of ignorance and powerlessness, which fortunately is beginning to be changed!" The above is my standard answer to an oft-asked question. The science of aging is by all evidence very misunderstood by the general public.  Hype, misinformation and unquestioned assumptions often prevail, unfortunately. Aging as a systemic breakdown of the body, rather than a series of isolated events and conditions. This 2013 diagram from NIH is a good way to jump-start contemplating the big picture: The diagram originates from the Cell journal: The Hallmarks of Aging   Telomere shortening is perhaps the one most talked about - but just one of several processes.  As stated in the above paper: Each

Interactomics + Super (or Quantum) Computers + Machine Learning : the Future of Medicine?

[Updated Mar. 2021] Interactomics today bears a certain resemblance to genomics in the  1990s...  Big gaps in knowledge, but an explosively-growing field of great promise. If you're unfamiliar with the terms, genomics is about deciphering the gene sequence of an organism, while interactomics is about describing all the relevant bio-molecules and their web of interactions. A Detective Story Think of a good police-detective story; typically there is a multitude of characters, and an impossible-to-remember number of relationships: A hates B, who loves C, who had a crush on D, who always steers clear of E, who was best friends with A until D arrived... Yes, just like those detective stories, things get very complex with our biological story!  Examples of webs of interactions, familiar to many who took intro biology, are the Krebs cycle for metabolism or the Calvin cycle to fix carbon into sugars in plant photosynthesis. Now, imagine vastly expanding those cycles of rea

Brain Microarchitecture : Feedback from Higher-order areas to Lower-order areas

Some questions that arise in Machine Learning involve the prospect of using feedback from Higher-order areas (downstream) to Lower-order areas (upstream), and using Global Knowledge for Local Processing.  A desire to gain insight into those issues from Neuroscience ("how does the brain do it?") led me to some fascinating investigations into the Microcircuits of the Cerebral Cortex.  This blog entry is a broad review of the field, in the context of the original motivating questions from Machine Learning.   Starting out with a quote from the “bible of Neuroscience”: From Principles of Neural Science, 5th edn  (Online book location 1435.3 / 5867).  Emphasis and note added by me: Sensory pathways are not exclusively serial; in each functional pathway higher-order areas project back to the lower-order areas from which they receive input. In this way neurons in higher-order areas, sensitive to the global pattern of sensory input, can modulate the activity of neurons in lowe