Welcome Physics World  April 2022

Start-ups tackle today’s technology challenges

The constant evolution of modern technologies brings many benefits to the consumer. Nowhere is this more obvious than with smartphones, which are increasingly advanced and powerful. The same is true of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, which are becoming ever more complex and could boost progress in fields ranging from astrophysics and cancer diagnostics to speech recognition and self-driving cars.

Such advances, however, also create challenges. The smartphone displays needed for high-resolution web browsing soak up lots of energy, while advanced AI algorithms require ever-increasing amounts of processing power. But as fast as these obstacles appear, we see start-up companies emerging to address them. In this Physics World Optics & Photonics Briefing, we profile two companies using novel light-based technologies to do just that. 

First up is Lightelligence, a firm spun out from Masschussetts Institute of Technology, which is developing optical chips for high-performance computing. In our interview, co-founder Yichen Shen highlights the pressing need for a new approach that can deliver enough processing power to run the next-generation of AI algorithms. The solution, says Shen, lies in optical processors.

Light is ideal for AI-based computing. As well as enabling very high data throughput, it is far more energy efficient than electronics and has lower latency because it travels much faster through circuits than electrons. Building on these advantages, Lightelligence has developed PACE, its photonic arithmetic computing engine. Shen says that PACE is the first optical computing system that’s been shown to be superior to a digital system, running hundreds of times faster than high-end graphical processing units while solving some of the hardest computation problems. 

Elsewhere, Vienna-based VitreaLab is hoping to revolutionize displays with its laser-powered photonic integrated circuits. The company is developing a laser-lit chip technology, based on micron-scale waveguides inscribed into glass, that can create highly power-efficient displays for smartphones or laptops. VitreaLab also plans to use its technology to create high-quality holographic displays.

Bolstering its credentials, VitreaLab was chosen as the winner of this year’s SPIE Startup Challenge, which showcases the most promising photonics-enabled technologies. As co-founder Jonas Zeuner explains: “We made a statement that we can fundamentally change what this displays space can do and bring it into a new era. And we have evidence that we can actually do this, with proof-of-concept devices.”