Bits&Chips once met a Dutch local politician who was under the impression that integrated photonics would replace all electronics. Surely, photonics lobbyists didn’t intentionally impart that impression on him, but the sector should take the existence of such misunderstandings to heart nonetheless. Setting expectations so unrealistically high that they can never be met will eventually result in a backlash, endangering the entire effort to build an integrated photonics industry in the Netherlands. Not to mention the fact that it – understandably – pisses off the electronics folks to no end.
One day, an ‘optical transistor’ may be invented that can compete with the electron-based version, but current photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology will never supersede CMOS. A truly optical computing element cannot be smaller than the wavelength of the light passing through it, which is at least several hundreds of nanometers. That’s huge compared to advanced CMOS, whose smallest features measure tens of nanometers. Thus, PICs can never reach the same complexity of ICs – the optical ICs would get gigantic.
There are PIC applications, of course, that don’t require IC-like complexity. The primary example is signal routing in fiber-optic communication networks. This is currently performed by optical-electronic-optical conversion, which limits data rates. All-optical signal processing would greatly speed things up. With demand for data transport ever-increasing, this is one area where PICs can really shine.
Another often-encountered photonic myth, however, is that PICs will save the planet as well. Sure, they’re more efficient and will save power on signal routing. But signal routing is only responsible for a minor part of the total electricity consumption in data centers. It’s the computing and cooling that use up the most power. PICs will, therefore, not curb the alarming rate at which the electricity demand of data centers is increasing globally. If anything, one could argue PICs actually aggravate global warming by removing a bottleneck and allowing the data center industry to keep growing.
The most insidious piece of photonic fiction, though, has been the sense of entitlement that was at one point almost palpable in the Dutch photonics ecosystem. With a technological head start and several leading companies already in operation, the Netherlands would unquestionably become a worldwide leader in photonics once the technology took off. It was exactly this kind of overconfidence that is littered throughout Philips’ history.
Thankfully, former Philips and NXP executive René Penning de Vries has injected the sector with a healthy dose of reality. Already at his very first public appearance as the figurehead of PhotonDelta, early 2018, he warned (link in Dutch) that a technology will never take off solely by pushing it. A successful industry, particularly a budding one, needs a push-pull dynamic: customers that tell what they really need.
As the sector is currently finding out, getting to the point of being able to satisfy these demands often turns out to be a lot more complex than anticipated. As Penning de Vries said: “Around here, we’re quick to assume we’ve got our affairs in order, but only our customers can pass judgment on that! No doubt our capacity to deliver still needs work. You can drop the ball on a big customer only once.”
The fact that Penning de Vries fears complacency and openly acknowledges that there’s no guarantee of success is exactly what’s increasing the chances of success. Having both feet planted firmly on the ground, the Dutch photonic dream may well come true.