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Israelis ship eight tera-ops optical processor

Let there be light

Israeli technology Lenslet has begun shipping what it claims is the world's first optical microprocessor.

We should point out that we're not talking a Pentium or G5 here. Instead, the EnLight 256 is a DSP chip designed to perform a series of simple operations rather than provide a basis for general purpose processing.

However, its use of light rather than electronics enables it to perform up to eight trillion calculations per second - roughly a thousand times faster than semiconductor DSPs, the company claims.

Image copyright Lenslet

EnLight comprises an eight trillion ops per second vector-matrix engine, a 128 billion ops per second vector processing unit and a standard semiconductor DSP licensed from Texas Instruments for scalar processing and chip control.

It's the vector-matrix maths unit - called the Ablaze core - that uses optical processing technology. The optical engine - or Spatial Light Modulator (SLM), as Lenset calls it - is... well... here's how Lenset describes it: "A two dimensional 8-bit resolution, reflective mode intensity modulator." It operates using "advanced Multiple Quantum Well (MQW) [Gallium Arsenide] technology".

Essentially, it performs vector-matrix multiplication by firing 256 tiny "vertical cavity surface emitting" lasers into the SLM's "programmable internal optics". The beams interfere yielding a series of outputs that are 'read' by an array of 256 light detectors and converted back to electronic information. The chip is fast because it allows many calculations to be made in parallel.

Image copyright Lenslet

According to Lenslet, Ablaze can operate as a standalone device. The company reckons it has a role in a number of information processing and communications applications, including high capacity data storage, high bandwidth I/O in CMOS chips and others. As part of EnLight, its role broadens to take in high definition video encoding - such as H.264 compression for multiple HDTV channels - and unnamed "military and industrial" applications, but mostly military, we note from the tone of the company's web site.

Lenslet sees system designers replacing multi-DSP set-ups with single EnLight 256 chips. Not that it comes cheaply: the part is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars a pop, with each chip designed to order. ®

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