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What happens when light stops?

lightstops.jpgWell, for one thing, when light stops, velocity picks up!

A few weeks ago, I keynoted a crowd of 3,000 telecom professionals in Florida. One of the comments I made was this: when it comes to the velocity of change in the “big media universe,” we can only expect that the bandwidth and computing power in our lives will become ever more plentiful, and ever faster, because scientists are figuring out how to slow light to a crawl.

That’s important, because it migrates us from a world of “electronics based computing” to “photonics computing.” The difference in speed, capacity, processing power and everything else will be simply staggering. Think optical-chips based on light, not today’s model-T’s based on electrons.

This trend will make the electronic computers of today look like Cro-Magnon tools compared to the optical computers of tomorrow.

Last week, I caught an article in which the folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predicted that optical chips will be here within 5 years

A year ago, at another telecom event in Florida, I made the then bold prediction that as scientists learn to stop light, we’ll see bandwidth improvements of a huge degree. Some industry folks in the room were taken aback: it’s kind of interesting to read the article that was printed at the time (found below.)

It’s awful nice to see predictions of the past become mainstream quicker than you might have expected!

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Optical Futures: Another ET Look at Light
24 January 2006
CT’s Pipeline

Among the many intriguing observations and reports shared by the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies keynoter Jim Carroll in Tampa two weeks ago was the progress that optical researchers were making on the question of how to slow down light.

In our ET report in last week’s Pipeline, we’d written on how it might have been interesting to have one of the industry’s many optical experts comment on “when, where and how this could happen.” Since then, we’ve heard back from the futurist Carroll and checked in with one of those experts.

“The slowing of light is nothing new,” Carroll wrote, referring to New York Times article from last November that cited Harvard researchers who in 1999 who were able to slow light drastically and two years later were able to bring light to a stop.

Of most interest to Carroll about this science project, which already was well under way six years ago, is its new scale. Whereas the Harvard researchers required a roomful of equipment, according to the Times, IBM scientists now have created a tiny silicon device to slow down light from its usual 186,000 miles per second to 600 miles per second–or to about 0.3 percent of ordinary light speed.

“Heck, I could have a little light-stop-chip in my laptop some time in the future, plug into my optical-wall-plug, and access the yottabit universe,” Carroll wrote.

There’s no quibbling with ability of a wide-ranging, connect-the-dots futurist such as Carroll in getting those (trade journalists included) who may be stuck in a particular niche to drop the blinders and look around, and ahead. His talk certainly was an effective way to jolt ET attendees into a forward- leaning frame of mind.

New optical thinking

For input from one of the industry’s optical experts, we turned to OpVista CTO Dr. Winston Way, who noted up front how thinking about optical networking already is undergoing a shift.

“Before, people only thought that you could manage packets, frames or bytes, but I think right now people have just started to think about the fact that light, or colors, can be managed also,” Way said. One of OpVista’s calling cards is its novel approach to reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers (ROADMs).

As for not simply managing, but arresting lightwaves, Way said: “I think that is really out-of-the-box thinking. It’s interesting. Slow it down so you can see what’s inside, then let it go again.”

Way said this project reminded him of work done at AT&T Bell Labs in the late 1980s and early 1990s on optical signal processing, which sidestepped the physical limitations of the electronics domain. “I’m not sure it’s practical today,” he said.

What Carroll was talking about, of course, was not today but tomorrow, or rather the day or year (or decade?) after. “I don’t make my stuff up,” Carroll wrote. “The future surrounds us, is being developed all around us and all the (technologies) that people work on eventually come into our lives. I just think…that it is going to come into our lives quicker than we might think.”

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