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Video: Light-based CPUs could break the terahertz barrier

The London Centre for Nanotechnology is dreaming up ways to make your gadgets faster. We visit their cool lab in this video.

2 min read
Watch this: Light-based CPUs could break the Terahertz barrier

It happens every time: as soon as we wax a load of cash on the latest gadget, the price of said tech will suddenly drop. A year later, regular as clockwork, the value of our gadget will have nose-dived to the extent that we'd be lucky to get 20p and a packet of wine gums for it on eBay.

Ho-hum -- that's the price we pay for being early adopters. But have you ever wondered why, in these austere times, everything else seems to be getting more and more expensive while technology is becoming more and more affordable?

The reason is, in a word, innovation. For over half a century, computers and chips have been getting simultaneously more powerful and less expensive. Moore's Law -- which states that the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled every two years -- has been the guiding principle of progress in computing since Intel co-founder Gordon Moore first coined the phrase in 1965. And, for the same amount of time, people have predicted it would hit a wall.

So far it hasn't, meaning computers have been getting exponentially more powerful as ever greater numbers of transistors are packed into an ever-smaller space. Modern chips pack in billions of transistors spaced a few tens of nanometres apart. 

"One question is, how can Moore's Law continue?" asks Professor Milo Shaffer of the London Centre for Nanotechnology. "There's a sense that we've been getting away with continually reducing the size and that's got to run out. You're going to start bumping into atomic structures. And before you bump into individual atoms you bump into other phenomena which will stop your device working in the way it should. So you start needing an alternative mode of operation."

Could the solution be a processor which runs on light rather than electricity? Photons travel faster than electrons, and in theory light-based processors could be a million times faster than our creaky old single-digit gigahertz CPUs.

This is just one idea being explored at the London Centre for Nanotechnology. Scientists here spend their days looking for ways to make ever-faster processors to satisfy our need for ever more advanced ultrabooks and smart phones. They invited us to their impressive lab to see what the future of computing will look like. Join us by clicking play on the video.

Are you looking forward to terahertz computing? Let us know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.