TUE Martijn Heck

Martijn Heck is a professor of photonic integration at Eindhoven University of Technology.

28 April

While we wait for technologies like quantum computing and integrated photonics to ‘explode,’ it’s good to realize that they’ve actually been on an exponential growth trajectory for decades already.

The fields of semiconductors and optical communications are so-called exponential technologies, in which parameters such as integration density and bandwidth double approximately every two years. Looking forward allows us to see huge potential and motivates us to get into immediate action, while looking back should actually teach us patience.

The corona pandemic has brought the concept of exponential growth to the attention of the public. For months, we’ve been looking at R0 values, and have seen how the number of cases can double every two weeks. One month, we were having the largest public festivity of the Netherlands, Carnival, and the next month, our ICUs were running out of capacity. The number of cases exploded, which is a typical characteristic of exponential growth.

This characteristic is the driving force behind the recent investments of over 600 million euros by the Dutch National Growth Fund in quantum technology and 250 million euros in integrated photonics through the National Agenda Photonics: these technologies have the potential to ‘explode’ with respect to their impact. Unprecedented computing power and (partial) replacement of electronics with photonics light up at the horizon. The Netherlands isn’t alone, obviously, and we’re competing heavily with other countries, which do similar levels of investments.

However, corona has taught us something else about exponential growth: unlike an actual explosion, it doesn’t appear out of thin air. During and before Carnival, preceding the first wave, and during the summer holidays, preceding the second wave, infection rates were low and stayed low, even though, very likely, large exponential growth was happening. It took months before we saw the ‘explosion,’ even though the numbers were growing dramatically before that.

This reminds me of a picture I once used to explain exponential growth to my class: if you would stand on an exponential curve, no matter where you stand, in your future, it’s like looking up to the Himalayas, while looking back, it would look as flat as the Netherlands. This perspective will remain the same change as you climb further along the curve: the mountain in front of you keeps getting bigger, making the previous one look tiny by comparison.

Technologies like quantum technology and integrated photonics have been following an exponential growth path for decades now, making giant leaps every year. There won’t be a big technological breakthrough that will make things ‘explode’ into an economic and/or societal impact. Rather, we’ve been looking at an ongoing sequence of big breakthroughs for a long time already.

What’s commonly perceived as the ‘explosion’ is the point in time when a new technology significantly outperforms incumbent technologies. This will be the case when, for example, a quantum computer will outperform a classical computer on relevant computational problems. It can also happen when photonic integration is needed to connect computer chips or when every car has a lidar based on photonic integration. From the point of view of the development of these technologies, however, these ‘explosions’ are just another day in the office for the scientists and engineers.

The lesson here is that even with exponential growth, patience is required. The path for technologies to become competitive is long and requires a world-class ecosystem that’s continuously developing and improving itself. If it misses a step, or if the pause button is hit, it’s immediately out of the game. The hundreds of millions of euros recently invested in Dutch exponential technologies should be followed up with more if we want to capitalize on our investments.