New form of computing with light does not waste energy

The material inside the cube forms complex patterns that give the answer to the calculation directly. [Image: Hudson et al. - 10.1038 / s41467-019-10166-4]

Computation with light

Canadian researchers have developed an unprecedented and incredibly simple form of computing.

The entrances are provided through standard beams of light and shade, known as bands or fringes, which are fired across different facets of a hub containing a plastic material.

To know the result of the calculation just read the combined light fringes that emerge on the other side of the cube.

So far, the team has been able to use its new optical computing process to perform simple addition and subtraction operations.

The computing is highly localized, does not need energy source and operates completely within the spectrum of visible light.

The material in the cube reads and reacts "intuitively" to light, much like a plant does when it turns to the sun or as an octopus changes the color of its skin to adapt to the environment.

"We are very excited to be able to do addition and subtraction in this way, and we are thinking of ways to do other computational functions," said Professor Kalaichelvi Saravanamuttu of McMaster University. "These are autonomous materials that respond to stimuli and perform intelligent operations.

Visualization of the fringes of light emerging from the various faces of the cube. [Image: Hudson et al. - 10.1038 / s41467-019-10166-4]

Smart Objects

The technique, inspired by the natural biological systems it recalls, represents a completely new form of computation, which, according to the team, has the potential to perform complex and useful functions, and even others to be imagined, possibly organized along structures of neural networks.

The technology is based on a branch of chemistry called nonlinear dynamics, and uses materials designed and manufactured to produce specific reactions to light - a class of artificial materials known as metamaterials .

The amber polymeric artificial material is encapsulated within a glass cube about the size of a die used in a board game. The polymer begins as a liquid and turns into a gel in reaction to light.

The beam of light passes through the hub, exiting the opposite face toward a camera, which reads the results. The results are produced as light is refracted by the material inside the cube, whose components spontaneously form in thousands of filaments that react to light patterns to produce a new dimensional pattern that expresses the result.

As computation is embedded in the material, this optical computing technique will not replace current computers, but it can yield intelligent objects that give instant solutions to specific problems.

"We do not want to compete with existing computing technologies. We are trying to build materials with smarter and more sophisticated responses," said Fariha Mahmood, a co-author of the paper.


A soft photopolymer cuboid that computes with binary strings of white light
Alexander D. Hudson, Matthew R. Ponte, Fariha Mahmood, Thomas Pena Ventura, Kalaichelvi Saravanamuttu
Nature Communications Vol. 10, Article number: 2310 
DOI: 10.1038 / s41467- 019-10166-4

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