Today’s computers solve problems by moving electrons through circuits, but Professor Vladimir Shalaev is working on incredibly compelling technology that, once fully realised, will make this beyond obsolete – instead of electrons, he wants to perform computations by manipulating light.
“We’re running out of ways to make computers faster and quantum technology is clearly the next step,” he told Business Insider.
Shalaev is an expert in the field of nanophotonics, a branch of quantum physics that deals with how light behaves at very, very small scales. This idea of light-as-data presents staggering potential for the world of computation, but how could a computer possibly “steer” light through a computer circuit to calculate a correct answer?
The answer lies in metamaterials, man-made objects with unusual characteristics that are simply not found in nature. Metamaterials are pretty innocuous in appearance. They basically look like a sheet of material with a bunch of holes in it. They’re used to investigate all order of sciences, but it is certain metamaterial’s special relationship with light that makes it such an attractive tool for the next generation of computing. Specifically, it can bend and control light.
The fastest computers in the world today approach 1011 GHz, crunching through 100 billion operations every second. A fully-realised system making use of metamaterials to steer light through its circuits would dwarf this, clocking in at 1015 GHz.
Some of Shalaev’s work is funded by QWave, a venture capital fund helping businesses that are looking for opportunity in quantum technology.
“QWave is great because they’re helping build a quantum culture, investing lots of money in companies without any expectation for immediate return,” said Shalaev.
If incredibly powerful and efficient computers aren’t your thing, maybe you’d rather have an invisibility cloak.
Again, metamaterial is your ticket. It can already control light, so all it has to do is curve light around you. If no light reflects off of you, then no one can see you. If you can control the light to return back to its original trajectory after passing around you, you won’t even cast a shadow.
Imagine a rock that breaks the surface of a river. When water contacts the rock, it’s diverted around the rock before returning to business as usual on the other side. Think of the water as light and the rock as the metamaterial that affects it. The water never touches the space occupied by the rock, so that space might as well not be there. As far as the water is concerned, the rock doesn’t exist.
Of course a full-size and fully-operational “invisibility cloak” doesn’t exist just yet. These light manipulation techniques have so far only worked on an incredibly small scale, but that’s the only detail that matters – it works.
We’ll be paying attention here for sure. Metamaterial may very well usher in the next era of super-supercomputers. Shalaev was quick to remind us that “the invisibility is just for fun.”