New Chip Opens Door to AI Computing at Light Speed

by Ian Scheffler

Computing at the speed of light may reduce the energy cost of training AI. (Narongrit Doungmanee via Getty Images)

Penn Engineers have developed a new chip that uses light waves, rather than electricity, to perform the complex math essential to training AI. The chip has the potential to radically accelerate the processing speed of computers while also reducing their energy consumption.

The silicon-photonic (SiPh) chip’s design is the first to bring together Benjamin Franklin Medal Laureate and H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor Nader Engheta’s pioneering research in manipulating materials at the nanoscale to perform mathematical computations using light — the fastest possible means of communication — with the SiPh platform, which uses silicon, the cheap, abundant element used to mass-produce computer chips.

The interaction of light waves with matter represents one possible avenue for developing computers that supersede the limitations of today’s chips, which are essentially based on the same principles as chips from the earliest days of the computing revolution in the 1960s.

In a paper in Nature Photonics, Engheta’s group, together with that of Firooz Aflatouni, Associate Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, describes the development of the new chip. “We decided to join forces,” says Engheta, leveraging the fact that Aflatouni’s research group has pioneered nanoscale silicon devices.

Their goal was to develop a platform for performing what is known as vector-matrix multiplication, a core mathematical operation in the development and function of neural networks, the computer architecture that powers today’s AI tools.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Nader Engheta is the H. Nedwill Ramsey Professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering, Bioengineering, Materials Science and Engineering, and in Physics and Astronomy.