Charge of the Light Brigade: Faster and More Efficient New Chips Using Photons Instead of Electrons

"PACE - PEACE" Image by Etienne Valois

“PACE – PEACE” Image by Etienne Valois

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his immortal classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854. It was to honor the dead heroes of a doomed infantry charge at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Moreover, it strikingly portrayed the horrors of war. In just six short verses, he created a monumental work that has endured ever since for 162 years.

The poem came to mind last week after reading two recent articles on seemingly disparate topics. The first was posted on The New Yorker’s website on December 30, 2015 entitled In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All by Om Malik. This is highly insightful analysis of how and why tech giants such as Google in search, Facebook in social networking, and Uber in transportation, have come to dominate their markets. In essence, competition is a fierce and relentless battle in the global digital economy. The second was an article on CNET.com posted on December 23, 2015 entitled Chip Promises Faster Computing with Light, Not Electrical Wires by Stephan Shankland. I highly recommend reading both of them in their entirety.

Taken together, the homonym of “light” both in historical poetry and in tech, seems to tie these two posted pieces together insofar as contemporary competition in tech markets is often described in military terms and metaphors. Focusing on that second story here for purposes of this blog post, about a tantalizing advance in chip design and fabrication, will this survive as it moves forward into the brutal and relentlessly “winner takes all” marketplace? I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own, hopefully en-light-ening questions.

Forward, the Light Brigade

A team of researchers, all of whom are university professors, including Vladimir Stojanovic from the University of California at Berkeley who led the development, Krste Asanovic also from Berkeley, Rajeev Ram from MIT, and Milos Popovic from the University of Colorado at Boulder, have created a new type of processing chip “that transmits data with light”. As well, its architecture significantly increases processing speed while reducing power consumption.  A report on the team’s work was published in an article in the December 24, 2015 issue of Nature (subscription required) entitled Single-chip Microprocessor That Communicates Directly Using Light by Chen Sun, Mark T. Wade, Yunsup Lee, et al.

This approach, according to Wikipedia, of “using silicon as an optical medium”, is called silicon photonics. IBM (see this link) and Intel (see this link)  have likewise been involved in R&D in this field, but have yet to introduce anything ready for the market.

However, this team of university researchers believes their new approach might be introduced commercially within a year. While their efforts do not make chips run faster per se, the photonic elements “keep chips supplied with data” which avoids them having to lose time by idling. Thus, they can process data faster.

Currently (no pun intended), electrical signals traverse metal wiring across the world on computing and communications devices and networks. For data traveling greater national and international distances, the electronic signals are transposed into light and sent along on high-speed fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, this approach “isn’t cheap”.

Half a League Onward

What the university researchers’ team has done is create chips with “photonic components” built into them. If they succeed in scaling-up and commercializing their creation, consumers will be likely the beneficiaries. These advantages will probably manifest themselves first when used in data centers that, in turn, could speed up:

  • Google searches
  • Facebook image recognition
  • Other “performance-intensive features not economical today”
  • Remove processing bottlenecks and conserve battery life in smartphones and other personal computing platforms

Professor Stojanovic believes that one of their largest challenges if is to make this technology affordable before it can be later implemented in consumer level computing and communications devices. He is sanguine that such economies of scale can be reached. He anticipates further applications of this technology to enable chips’ onboard processing and memory components to communicate directly with each other.

Additional integrations of silicon photonics might be seen in the lidar remote sensing systems for self-driving cars¹, as well as brain imaging² and environmental sensors. It also holds the potential to alter the traditional methods that computers are assembled. For example, the length of cables is limited to the extent that data can pass through them quickly and efficiently before needed amplification along the way. Optical links may permit data to be transferred significant further along network cabling. The research team’s “prototype used 10-meter optical links”, but Professor Stojanovic believes this could eventually be lengthened to a kilometer. This could potentially result in meaningful savings in energy, hardware and processing efficiency.

Two startups that are also presently working in the silicon photonics space include:

My Questions:

  • Might another one of silicon photonics’ virtues be that it is partially fabricated from more sustainable materials, primarily silicon derived from sand rather than various metals?
  • Could silicon photonics chips and architectures be a solution to the very significant computing needs of the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems that will be coming onto the market in 2016? This issue was raised in a most interesting article posted on Bloomberg.com on December 30, 2015 entitled Few Computers Are Powerful Enough to Support Virtual Reality by Ian King. (See also these 13 Subway Fold posts on a range of VR and AR developments.)
  • What other new markets, technologies and opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers might emerge if the university research team’s chips achieve their intended goals and succeed in making it to market?

May 17, 2017 UpdateFor an update on one of the latest developments in photonics with potential applications in advanced computing and materials science, see Photonic Hypercrystals Are Now a Reality and Light Will Never Be the Same, by Dexter Johnson, posted on May 10, 2017, on IEEESpectrum.com. 


1.  See these six Subway Fold posts for references to autonomous cars.

2.  See these four Subway Fold posts concerning certain developments in brain imaging technology.

Facebook is Now Restricting Access to Certain Data About Its User Base to Third Parties

Image by Gerd Altmann

Image by Gerd Altmann

It is a simple and straight-forward basic business concept in any area of commerce: Do not become too overly reliant upon a single customer or supplier. Rather, try to build a diversified portfolio of business relationships to diligently avoid this possibility and, at the same time, assist in developing potential new business.

Starting in May 2015, Facebook instituted certain limits upon access to the valuable data about its 1.5 billion user base¹ to commercial and non-commercial third parties. This has caused serious disruption and even the end of operations for some of them who had so heavily depended on the social media giant’s data flow. Let’s see what happened.

This story was reported in a very informative and instructive article in the September 22, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Facebook’s Restrictions on User Data Cast a Long Shadow by Deepa Seetharaman and Elizabeth Dwoskin. (Subscription required.) If you have access to the WSJ.com, I highly recommend reading in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own third-party questions.

This change in Facebook’s policy has resulted in “dozen of startups” closing, changing their approach or being bought out. This has also affected political data consultants and independent researchers.

This is a significant shift in Facebook’s approach to sharing “one of the world’s richest sources of information on human relationships”. Dating back to 2007, CEO Mark Zuckerberg opened to access to Facebook’s “social graph” to outsiders. This included data points, among many others, about users’ friends, interests and “likes“.

However, the company recently changed this strategy due to users’ concerns about their data being shared with third parties without any notice. A spokeswoman from the company stated this is now being done in manner that is “more privacy protective”. This change has been implemented to thus give greater control to their user base.

Other social media leaders including LinkedIn and Twitter have likewise limited access, but Facebook’s move in this direction has been more controversial. (These 10 recent Subway Fold posts cover a variety of ways that data from Twitter is being mined, analyzed and applied.)

Examples of the applications that developers have built upon this data include requests to have friends join games, vote, and highlight a mutual friend of two people on a date. The reduction or loss of this data flow from Facebook will affect these and numerous other services previously dependent on it. As well, privacy experts have expressed their concern that this change might result in “more objectionable” data-mining practices.

Others view these new limits are a result of the company’s expansion and “emergence as the world’s largest social network”.

Facebook will provide data to outsiders about certain data types like birthdays. However, information about users’ friends is mostly not available. Some developers have expressed complaints about the process for requesting user data as well as results of “unexpected outcomes”.

These new restrictions have specifically affected the following Facebook-dependent websites in various ways:

  • The dating site Tinder asked Facebook about the new data policy shortly after it was announced because they were concerned that limiting data about relationships would impact their business. A compromise was eventually obtained but limited this site only to access to “photos and names of mutual friends”.
  • College Connect, an app that provided forms of social information and assistance to first-generation students, could not longer continue its operations when it lost access to Facebook’s data. (The site still remains online.)
  • An app called Jobs With Friends that connected job searchers with similar interests met a similar fate.
  • Social psychologist Benjamin Crosier was in the process of creating an app searching for connections “between social media activity and ills like drug addiction”. He is currently trying to save this project by requesting eight data types from Facebook.
  • An app used by President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was “also stymied” as a result. It was used to identify potential supporters and trying to get them to vote and encourage their friends on Facebook to vote or register to vote.²

Other companies are trying an alternative strategy to build their own social networks. For example, Yesgraph Inc. employs predictive analytics³ methodology to assist clients who run social apps in finding new users by data-mining, with the user base’s permission, through lists of email addresses and phone contacts.

My questions are as follows:

  • What are the best practices and policies for social networks to use to optimally balance the interests of data-dependent third parties and users’ privacy concerns? Do they vary from network to network or are they more likely applicable to all or most of them?
  • Are most social network users fully or even partially concerned about the privacy and safety of their personal data? If so, what practical steps can they take to protect themselves from unwanted access and usage of it?
  • For any given data-driven business, what is the threshold for over-reliance on a particular data supplier? How and when should their roster of data suppliers be further diversified in order to protect themselves from disruptions to their operations if one or more of them change their access policies?

 


1.   Speaking of interesting data, on Monday, August 24, 2015, for the first time ever in the history of the web, one billion users logged onto the same site, Facebook. For the details, see One Out of Every 7 People on Earth Used Facebook on Monday, by Alexei Oreskovic, posted on BusinessInsider.com on August 27, 2015.

2See the comprehensive report entitled A More Perfect Union by Sasha Issenberg in the December 2012 issue of MIT’s Technology Review about how this campaign made highly effective use of its data and social networks apps and data analytics in their winning 2012 re-election campaign.

3.  These seven Subway Fold posts cover predictive analytics applications in range of different fields.