Affordable, Light-Speed Supercomputer One Step Closer

An Optalysys demonstrator model, which uses light to perform mathematical functions
An Optalysys demonstrator model, which uses light to perform mathematical functions. Optalysys

An affordable supercomputer which works at the speed of light, can fit on a desk, run on a domestic power supply and help solve some of humanity's biggest problems is one step closer to becoming a reality.

Speaking exclusively to Newsweek, the company behind the development of an optical processor, Optalysys, has announced a working prototype, which uses laser-beams refracted through liquid crystal displays to compute mathematical functions at light-speed.

However, the prototype model isn't hitting supercomputer speeds just yet - it's currently just a little more powerful than a Playstation 3. Optalysys plans on delivering processors that are more powerful than today's fifth fastest computers by 2017, which will be used for projects requiring the analysis of vast amounts of data, ranging from weather forecasting to genome sequencing. By 2020 it wants to deliver a computer 500 times faster than the current fastest in the world, Tianhe 2.

The company says that the technology could be used to solve some of the biggest issues facing mankind, for example by using genome sequencing to revolutionise healthcare and agriculture - all at a fraction of the cost and energy consumption of current models of electronic supercomputing.

The technology works by loading data into liquid crystal displays, made up of millions of pixels. Laser beams are projected through the displays and are encoded by the liquid crystal, causing them to diffract and form mathematical functions, with the result picked up by a camera, allowing the computations to take place at the speed of light.

"There's definitely the potential for it to change the world," says James Duez, the chairman of Optalysys. "What's exciting about it is it's applicable to so many fields. It's a game changing technology."

Duez says a "step-change" is needed to tackle ambitious projects because current electronic supercomputing has struggled to make significant advances in recent years due to physical barriers.

One of those projects is the Square Kilometer Array, an astronomy radio telescope project which will begin observations in 2020, producing greater amounts of data than the world's current internet traffic. "They need something three times bigger than the world's biggest supercomputer to get started, and it doesn't exist," he says. "We see it as a serious scientific key to unlocking all sorts of projects."

A key factor could be the affordability of the technology. Unlike electronic supercomputers, optical processors can be scaled up without increasing their size significantly, and the energy costs are strikingly low. Optalysys claims its technology has a projected energy running cost 1/7000th that of Tianhe 2, assuming equivalent spec - the former runs at $3,000, the latter at $21 million a year.