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Businessweek Archives

Making Light Work Of Photons

Developments to Watch

Making Light Work of Photons

OPTICAL COMPUTING HAS LONG SHONE as the theoretical hope for faster number-crunchers when electronics bumps up against physical limits around 2020. A pair of breakthroughs makes that prospect seem far more likely.

A problem has been storing a digital bit with a light pulse. It's tricky; light, by nature, is always moving at the speed of light. So keeping a photon in one spot means bouncing it back and forth between mirrors, or pumping it through coils of optical fiber. Neither approach is practical outside a lab because it takes up far more space than today's memory chips.

Now, researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich and nearby Munich Technical University have devised a promising tactic. They use semiconductor structures to transform photons into "electron-hole pairs." Those are an outgrowth of quantum physics: Electrons have a negative charge, and "holes" carry a positive charge. When they meet, they annihilate one another and give off a flash of light. The trick is to control the timing of that annihilation. The researchers report in the Feb. 26 issue of Science that they can temporarily delay recombination and thus retrieve a photon at a predetermined instant.

Meanwhile, in the Feb. 11 issue of Nature, physicists at Stanford University unveiled a chip that uses electron-hole annihilation to create photons in vast numbers. Their chip is studded with thousands of posts, each of which can emit millions of photons a second. The posts also act as turnstiles, ensuring that only single photons pop out on schedule. Computers capable of processing single-photon signals would leave today's supercomputers in the dust.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

How to Get Bugs out of Kids' Ears

EVERY YEAR IN THE U.S., childhood ear infections prompt 24 million visits to pediatricians' offices--and rack up medical and surgical costs of more than $3 billion. But a new drug called NE-1530, made from a complex sugar that's found in breast milk, could drastically reduce the incidence of such ear infections--and the tab.

The drug is the brainchild of Stephen A. Roth, chief executive of Neose Technologies Inc., a biotech company in Horsham, Pa. NE-1530 is very different from the antibiotics usually used to treat ear infections. It doesn't work by hunting down germs: Instead, it lures the bugs to their destruction. The compound is made by linking sugar molecules together to mimic a natural carbohydrate molecule found on the surface of ear cells. When bacteria or viruses are tricked into glomming on to these decoys, they can't infect ear cells, and the body's defense system has no trouble clearing out the molecular mimes and any nasties clinging to them.

Because NE-1530 removes pathogens without killing them, it is unlikely to cause bacteria to develop increased resistance to antibiotics, a growing problem due partly to overuse of antibiotics. And because it is a natural, nontoxic compound, it should have no debilitating side effects, according to Roth. The drug, now in clinical trials in Finland, is administered as a nasal spray.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

Nuggets of Data from Taped Phone Calls

"YOUR CALL MAY BE MONITORED TO ENSURE QUALITY." This disclaimer crops up all the time these days. People are especially apt to hear it when they call various help desks to ask about product warranties, software problems, travel arrangements, medical services, or dozens of other issues. At many companies, the monitoring isn't done by supervisors but by digital recorders. As a result, companies are accumulating mammoth databases of audio files.

Dragon Systems Inc. in Newton, Mass., will soon offer computer-based tools to help sift through that cacophony for precious clues to customer satisfaction, shifts in buying patterns, and other trends. Using the same speech-recognition tricks that are employed in Dragon's popular NaturallySpeaking dictation software, the new program can create word indexes from reams of recorded speech. The indexes allow managers to move quickly to the locations on the tape where the keywords and phrases occur.

Users can also query the database about the frequency with which a certain word is used in phone conversations. Managers can find out, for example, how many calls on a given day made reference to a particular glitch in the software. Dragon's audio-mining software can't create perfect transcripts, but it can extract plenty of data just from the indexes. A commercial product is scheduled for launch by yearend.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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