Computing: Things Go Better with Light

January 22, 2021

Electricity is too slow at matrix math for IBM. Now, announces ZDNet, “IBM Is Using Light, Instead of Electricity, to Create Ultra-Fast Computing.” The shift could be especially important to the future of self-driving automobiles, where ultra-fast processing is needed to avoid collisions at high travel speeds. Reporter Daphne Leprince-Ringuet writes:

“Although the device has only been tested at a small scale, the report suggests that as the processor develops, it could achieve one thousand trillion multiply-accumulate (MAC) operations per second and per square-millimeter – according to the scientists, that is two to three orders more than ‘state-of-the-art AI processors’ that rely on electrical signals.”

IBM researchers have been working toward this goal for some time. Last year, the company demonstrated the tech’s potential through in-memory computing with devices that performed computational tasks using light. Now they have created what they call a photonic tensor core they say is particularly suited for deep-learning applications. The article continues:

“The most significant advantage that light-based circuits have over their electronic counterparts is never-before-seen speed. Leveraging optical physics, the technology developed by IBM can run complex operations in parallel in a single core, using different optical wavelengths for each calculation. Combined with in-memory computing, IBM’s scientists achieved ultra-low latency that is yet to be matched by electrical circuits. For applications that require very low latency, therefore, the speed of photonic processing could make a big difference. … With its ability to perform several operations simultaneously, the light-based processor developed by IBM also requires much less compute density.”

That is another consideration for self-driving vehicles—the smaller the hardware the better. But this technology is far from ready for the road. IBM still must evaluate how it can be integrated for end-to-end performance. The potential to trade electricity for light is an interesting development; we are curious to see how this unfolds.

Cynthia Murrell, January 22, 2021


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