Accelerating AI at the speed of light

Improved computing power and an exponential increase in data have helped fuel the rapid rise of artificial intelligence. But as AI systems become more sophisticated, they’ll need even more computational power to address their needs, which traditional computing hardware most likely won’t be able to keep up with. To solve the problem, MIT spinout Lightelligence is developing the next generation of computing hardware.

The Lightelligence solution makes use of the silicon fabrication platform used for traditional semiconductor chips, but in a novel way. Rather than building chips that use electricity to carry out computations, Lightelligence develops components powered by light that are low energy and fast, and they might just be the hardware we need to power the AI revolution. Compared to traditional architectures, the optical chips made by Lightelligence offer orders of magnitude improvement in terms of high speed, low latency, and low power consumption.

In order to perform arithmetic operations, electronic chips need to combine tens, sometimes hundreds, of logic gates. To perform this process requires the electronic chip transistors to switch off and on for multiple clock periods. Every time a logic gate transistor switches, it generates heat and consumes power.

Not so with the chips produced by Lightelligence. In the optical domain, arithmetic computations are done with physics instead of with logic gate transistors that require multiple clocks. More clocks means a slower time to get a result. "We precisely control how the photons interact with each other inside the chip," says Yichen Shen PhD '16, co-founder and CEO of Lightelligence. “It’s just light propagating through the chip, photons interfering with each other. The nature of the interference does the mathematics that we want it to do.”

This process of interference generates very little heat, which means Shen's optical computing chips enable much lower power consumption than their electron-powered counterparts. Shen points out that we've made use of fiber optics for long-distance communication for decades. "Think of the optical fibers spread across the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the light propagating through thousands of kilometers without losing much power. Lightelligence is bringing this concept for long-distance communication to on-chip compute.”

With most forecasters projecting an end to Moore's Law sometime in 2025, Shen believes his optic-driven solution is poised to address many of the computational challenges of the future. “We’re changing the fundamental way computing is done, and I think we’re doing it at the right time in history,” says Shen. “We believe optics is going to be the next computing platform, at least for linear operations like AI.”

To be clear, Shen does not e


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