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The world’s tech visionaries have long predicted life-transforming innovations for us all—smart homes, fully autonomous vehicles, disease-preventing breakthroughs and gene therapy treatments. Yet progress has been patchy and, to date, only glimpses of their full potential have emerged. Why have the promises of a high-speed, high-tech vision exceeded reality so far?

One issue is that society’s continued reliance on electronics has created significant obstacles to advancing transformative technologies. Electronic systems are power-hungry and have inherent bandwidth restrictions. These factors hinder data-intensive applications, while continued growth of the electronics market also contributes to rising carbon emissions, exacerbating climate-change challenges.

As a result, there is a pressing need for an alternative solution that can overcome these bottlenecks and pave the way for a more sustainable and efficient technological future. Could photonics, which uses light particles to transmit and compute, be the answer?

Building the Next Internet

Tech companies are showing a growing interest in the extraordinary potential of photonics. Global technology firm NTT is building networks for photonics through initiatives such as the Innovative Optical and Wireless Network, or IOWN which is spearheading an All-Photonics Network (APN) to connect networks, data centers,  smartphones, vehicles and other devices optically end-to-end.

To achieve this new paradigm, a concerted global effort is required. The IOWN Global Forum, founded in 2020 with Intel, Sony and NTT as founding members, is actively leading this effort. It aims to improve communication computing infrastructure with photonics by fostering knowledge exchange, pooling resources and establishing standards.

“Photonics is the science of manipulating light—namely photons—to convey information, among other things,” says Gonzalo Camarillo, chair of the IOWN Global Forum Marketing Steering Committee. “Photonics embraces a wide range of topics and applications, some of which have revolutionary potential.”

While electronics rely on electron flows along conductive wires, photonics leverages beams of photons across transparent optical fiber or through free space. This contrast enables higher speeds and bandwidth because light moves much faster than electrons.

Photonics can unlock virtually unlimited data transmission and analysis capacity, fueling tremendous progress in AI applications, for example. The resulting performance leap means networks and data centers could rapidly share immense datasets with extremely lower latency or response times.

Camarillo cites numerous examples of photonics technologies that people may be using already without realizing it, such as in televisions and smartphone displays. “Fiber-optic communications form the core of the public internet,” he says. “In the healthcare sector, many diagnostic tools use photonics-based sensors and many procedures, such as those that correct eyesight, use lasers.”

In the automotive sector, cars are increasingly equipped with LIDAR—light detection and ranging—sensors “to provide the driver with more information and to enable self-driving features,” he adds. “These technologies are continuously developing, with new use cases being constantly researched and eventually realized.”

This revolution won’t be simple… it requires a truly global collaborative effort.
Katsuhiko Kawazoe – President and Chair, IOWN Global Forum and Senior Executive Vice President, NTT

Photonics in Action

More companies are starting to explore the potential of photonics. Earlier this year Nokia, another IOWN Global Forum member, completed a joint proof of concept with NTT, using APN technology to demonstrate dramatically reduced power consumption, lower latency and increased transmission distance for 5G networks.

Another core component of IOWN is Digital Twin Computing, which allows virtual representations of complex systems, or digital twins, to interact. IOWN Global Forum member Mitsubishi Chemical is now leveraging photonics-based digital-twin technologies to enable remote operation of factories, ensuring efficient and safer operations for workers.

“Optical communications are an integral part of the ICT infrastructure,” says Camarillo. Applied to networking and computing, photonics promises to revolutionize remote collaboration by enabling immersive, real-time interactions that closely mimic in-person experiences. It will far surpass the capabilities of current video-call technologies, for example, allowing for seamless communication, integration of advanced technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality and the creation of shared virtual environments that enhance a sense of physical presence.

“When it comes to communications, photonics technologies are already widely used in certain segments such as long-haul transport links and data centers,” he adds. “Just think how easy it is today to place an order and track the shipment. Applying it to other fields, such as biology or medicine, will allow us to implement truly exciting new applications.”

Collaborative Effort for Collective Good

Large-scale adoption of photonics hasn’t yet occurred because of familiar barriers to progress. Without coordinated public and private efforts a comprehensive rollout will take longer, while deployment requires further infrastructure development, interface standardization and cost reduction.

To help advance this, the IEEE Photonics Society in America, boasting over 300,000 members, is actively driving progress. Through organizing conferences, publishing research and developing standards, in conjunction with the efforts of IOWN and individual companies, it is contributing significantly to the evolution of photonics technology.

Katsuhiko Kawazoe, IOWN Global Forum president and chair, and senior executive vice-president of NTT, is confident that photonics can reach its full potency. “But this revolution won’t be simple and requires a truly global and open collaborative effort to make it happen,” he says.