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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, 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


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