Future Computational Technologies and Biomimicry

Remember I promised that I would share my research on this blog “someday”?  I am glad to announce –  finally, that day is near! But not today~  Ha! I will definitely share my research with you here next time when I write on this blog, so stay tuned!!

Before that happens, let us take another direction and maybe I can help you see the hidden threads connecting the seemingly unrelated topics of biomimicry, future computational technologies, and my research.

If you are a fan of Sci-Fi movies or TV shows like me, have you ever wondered why the “alien” or “futuristic” computers all have guts like this picture below on the left?


– Superman (1978)


– Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)

fantasy-crystal2Even if you are not old enough to have watched the original superman movie when it first came out, you are likely to have watched the rerun on TV, given its popularity. Do you remember what the computer control panels and the “key” that is used to store the information of his identity, his father’s “spirit” and to boot-up the computer mainframe on the ship looks like? You are definitely correct, it’s a crystal again!! But why is that?  Have they all incidentally chosen “crystal” at random?

Besides the “cool” factor and the fact that it looks good on TV, I believe those visual settings are all influenced by the term “photonic crystal.”

Our modern computer technology is based on transistors made from semiconductors and running on electricity, because electric signals can be controlled and manipulated by semiconductors. However, current computer technology has reached a bottleneck and needs a fundamental change either in the architecture or materials used to build the computer. Scientists and efig2 拷貝ngineers have studied possible solutions for next generation computing for quite some time now. One of the possible solutions is called optical (photonic) computing. The idea is that, just like semiconductors can be used to manipulate an electron’s behavior, photonic crystals can be used to control light’s behavior. So if we build the transistors using photonic crystals instead of semiconductors and power our computers by light instead of electricity… Voila! The computers should look like what we see in the movies and TV shows, right?joannopoulos-fig1-1

Mmmm, not quite~~ First off, the term “photonic crystal” is misleading. Photonic crystals don’t need to look like a “crystal”. The term “crystal” only means that there is “periodicity” in the material, and it can be any shape and form as long as it has a periodic structure. Therefore, the more realistic illustrations of photonic crystals are actually those shown here on the left.

The first stage of optical computing probably will be something like this:

It will be faster, smaller and more energy efficient. All good, but how does that connect with biomimicry? Do you realize that photonic crystals exist in living organisms, especially in birds and insects? It’s also the foundation for structural color production! Hence, understanding the principles of structural colors in nature could inform new photonic crystal designs or fabrication techniques. See the connection now?

The core computing architecture for computers hasn’t changed for almost 70 years now, and it desperately needs a change; not just an incremental upgrade, but a paradigm shift is needed. No matter how fast modern computers in current architecture are, they are dealing with problems sequentially. So with simple and straightforward problems, they can deal with them quickly and accurately. However, they will struggle when they encounter real world, complex systems. That is the reason why our brain is still much better than any computer, even if our brain is significantly slower. Our brains deal with information in parallel, not linearly like the computer. Even though you can add cores in current CPUs or connect many computers together over the internet to deal with parallel computing, it’s just not an efficient way to achieve significant performance improvements that can match the human brain.

There are many ways to improve parallel computing power as well. With optical computing, it’s easier to achieve because of the nature of light. And that is what Optalysys is trying to do now. Another more biomimetic way – emulating the neural network of the human brain in a computer chip – is currently being research by IBM, and they are already getting very positive results!!

Earlier last week, when the attention of world’s media was all drawn to Apple’s big media event, advances about optical computing were also quietly announced. The future is indeed looking bright – you just need to know where to look! And it’s not just about Apple~ (Even for a fan of Apple’s products like me.)  :p

This video here also shows the power of lightbending (pun intended).  LOL~

News from last week related to optical computing:

  1. Super-efficient photonic switch created
  2. 500 GHz photon switch is based on subnanometer-scale-engineered optical fiber
  3. Lasers could make hard drives faster, simpler and higher density


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