A few nights ago I was thinking about the optical fibre memories that we were designing in the late 1980s in BT. The idea was simple. You transmit data into an optical fibre, and if the data rate is high you can squeeze lots of data into a manageable length. Back then the speed of light in fibre was about 5 microseconds per km of fibre, so 1000km of fibre, at a data rate of 2Gb/s would hold 10Mbits of data, per wavelength, so if you can multiplex 2 million wavelengths, you’d store 20Tbits of data. You could maintain the data by using a repeater to repeat the data as it reaches one end into the other, or modify it at that point simply by changing what you re-transmit. That was all theory then, because the latest ‘hero’ experiments were only just starting to demonstrate the feasibility of such long lengths, such high density WDM and such data rates.
Nowadays, that’s ancient history of course, but we also have many new types of fibre, such as hollow fibre with various shaped pores and various dopings to allow a range of effects. And that’s where using it for computing comes in.
If optical fibre is designed for this purpose, with optimal variable refractive index designed to facilitate and maximise non-linear effects, then the photons in one data stream on one wavelength could have enough effects of photons in another stream to be used for computational interaction. Computers don’t have to be digital of course, so the effects don’t have to be huge. Analog computing has many uses, and analog interactions could certainly work, while digital ones might work, and hybrid digital/analog computing may also be feasible. Then it gets fun!
Some of the data streams could be programs. Around that time, I was designing protocols with smart packets that contained executable code, as well as other packets that could hold analog or digital data or any mix. We later called the smart packets ANTs – autonomous network telephers, a contrived term if ever there was one, but we wanted to call them ants badly. They would scurry around the network doing a wide range of jobs, using a range of biomimetic and basic physics techniques to work like ant colonies and achieve complex tasks using simple means.
If some of these smart packets or ANTs are running along a fibre, changing the properties as they go to interact with other data transmitting alongside, then ANTs can interact with one another and with any stored data. ANTs could also move forwards or backwards along the fibre by using ‘sidings’ or physical shortcuts, since they can route themselves or each other. Data produced or changed by the interactions could be digital or analog and still work fine, carried on the smart packet structure.
(If you’re interested my protocol was called UNICORN, Universal Carrier for an Optical Residential Network, and used the same architectural principles as my previous Addressed Time Slice invention, compressing analog data by a few percent to fit into a packet, with a digital address and header, or allowing any digital data rate or structure in a payload while keeping the same header specs for easy routing. That system was invented (in 1988) for the late 1990s when basic domestic broadband rate should have been 625Mbit/s or more, but we expected to be at 2Gbit/s or even 20Gbit/s soon after that in the early 2000s, and the benefit as that we wouldn’t have to change the network switching because the header overheads would still only be a few percent of total time. None of that happened because of government interference in the telecoms industry regulation that strongly disincentivised its development, and even today, 625Mbit/s ‘basic rate’ access is still a dream, let alone 20Gbit/s.)
Such a system would be feasible. Shortcuts and sidings are easy to arrange. The protocols would work fine. Non-linear effects are already well known and diverse. If it were only used for digital computing, it would have little advantage over conventional computers. With data stored on long fibre lengths, external interactions would be limited, with long latency. However, it does present a range of potentials for use with external sensors directly interacting with data streams and ANTs to accomplish some tasks associated with modern AI. It ought to be possible to use these techniques to build the adaptive analog neural networks that we’ve known are the best hope of achieving strong AI since Hans Moravek’s insight, coincidentally also around that time. The non-linear effects even enable ideal mechanisms for implementing emotions, biasing the computation in particular directions via intensity of certain wavelengths of light in much the same way as chemical hormones and neurotransmitters interact with our own neurons. Implementing up to 2 million different emotions at once is feasible.
So there’s a whole mineful of architectures, tools and techniques waiting to be explored and mined by smart young minds in the IT industry, using custom non-linear optical fibres for optical AI.