Transistors, microprocessors, and other microelectronic devices can work at amazing speeds. In fact, they're so fast that it's hard to send all the data over wires that connect one chip to another. That's why researchers are increasingly looking to send the signals as light pulses, either through fiber-optic wires or directly through space. Over the past few years, scientists have linked computers--even circuit boards within computers--through optical connections.
Now, scientists at AT&T Bell Laboratories have taken the marriage of electronics and optics a step further by producing a simple computer chip that both receives and sends its information via rays of light. The 1mm-square chip contains an array of 16 communication-switching elements, each sporting 17 laser diodes and 25 transistors, and it's "smart" enough to control a "very high-speed washing machine," jokes David A.B. Miller, head of Bell Labs' advanced photonics research. In the next few years, says Miller, a chip could be made with thousands of elements, making it possible to process large amounts of information--as in telephone switching or image recognition--far faster than can be done with existing devices.