Are Light Speed Computers Around The Corner?

A long-time goal of computer scientists is a machine that uses beams of light instead of electrons to crunch information. Such "optoelectronic" computers would offer a leap in speed and performance--and use a lot less power. But so far, the optical processors built at places such as AT&T Bell Labs have only been able to do simple calculations.

OptiComp Corp. in Lake Tahoe, Nev., has taken a big step forward. Backed by the Pentagon's Star Wars program, the company has built a machine that can execute up to 12 billion instructions per second, which rivals the speed of conventional high-performance computers. The leap in speed comes from using arrays of lasers with scores of light beams instead of a handful, as earlier machines did. OptiComp is already working on a machine that will run at least 100 times faster. Among other chores, optoelectronic computers are especially suited for high-speed searches of data bases or number-crunching in low-power satellites.

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