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Your Next Computer Chip Revolution Unveiled by IBM: Sexy Blend of Lasers, Electrons

IBM chips

IBM's just unveiled a new breakthrough chip tech: CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics. Confused? It's actually pretty astonishing, promising chip-sized supercomputer power in the near future. Now you're interested....

We've known for a while that optical technology is going to be the next big revolution in computing—it's simply faster than pure electronics, and means you can get even greater performance with lower power demands from similar-sized devices. The trick is about blending optical technology at a nanoscopic scale with existing silicon electronics—and this is where CMOS ISN has achieved a breakthrough. It means thanks to research at IBM's research facility, it's now possible to integrate optical computing technology and conventional electronics onto a single slice of silicon.

Optical signals can carry more information more swiftly than electronics can manage—it's why Intel's fiber-optic Light Peak connection cables may quickly supersede newcomer USB3—and the associated electronics can eat less power than normal silicon tech. This means when you mix the systems together on chips, you can get up to ten times more integration density than is possible with current chip fabrication tech. Putting a bunch of them together results in a computer that shoots data around at rates that would seem incredible compared to current designs.

IBM's trick requires no particularly hefty refits of existing CMOS production plants, and means all the nanoscopic optical equipment like modulators and photodetectors can be built right in to a more conventional chip—meaning there's no need to add in extra-special chips to access the benefits of optical tech when you're building an integrated optical computer.

Still confused? The upshot: Chips can be significantly faster, and still consume less electrical power. Enough that IBM thinks the chips could build an exascale supercomputer, roughly 1,000 times faster than the fastest machine that exists. The side effect of this, of course, will be consumer-level systems that could be as powerful as today's research supercomputers. Your laptop in several years may be driven by chips packed with frikking laser beams, people.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.