The Technium

The Photonic Age

We are moving into a photonic world. Photonics may become more important that electronics.

Photons, like electrons, can carry both energy and information. We have heavy wires for electrons carrying big energy, enough to shock or kill you, and we have tiny wires, smaller than a hair for electrons to carry information — in electronics and chips —- whose energy you can’t feel in any way.

We have photons from the sun. Outside of the shields of atmosphere and magnetic fields, these photons — especially the UV variety — could kill you. Within the shields of Earth these photons warm us and power all plants and indirectly all life on this planet. We have lasers that shoot photons with enough power to cut through steel and kill us. We also have weaker streams of photons that carry information — glass fibers and screens — whose energy we can’t feel in any way.

The digital realm runs on electrons. Electrons underpin the entire realm of computing and today’s communication. Almost all bits are electronic bits. We use packets of electrons to make binary codes of off/on. We make logic circuits out of packets of electronics flowing around circuits. Electrons are close to our idea of particles flowing like bits of matter.

Photons on the other hand are waves, or wavicles. Light and all electromagnetic spectrum like radio travel as wave-particles. They are not really discrete particles. They are continuous, analog waves. They are almost the opposite of binary. To one approximation, the photonic world is closer to analog than is the electronic world.

We have interfaces for moving between electronics and photonics.  That’s how you get Instagram pics on your phone, and Netflix over fiber optic cables. Electronic binary packets rush into screens which emit photons. As we enhance our virtual worlds we will do ever more with photons. Augmented reality, mixed reality, or what I call Mirrorworlds, are spatially rendered spaces with full volumetric depth and minute visual detail that will mimic the photons of the real world.  To render full volumetric spatial scenes with the resolution needed, and to light it convincingly, in a shared world with many participants will require astronomical amounts of computation. Since the results we want are in photons, it may turn out that we do as much of the computation in photonics, rather than going from photons to electrons and then back to photons. Instead of electronic chips we’ll have photonic chips. Photons race around and are gated and shunted to compute results and then the results are display directly as photons. We see them on the screens in our smart glasses. Using cameras in our smart glasses we detect the photons generated by another person in the Mirrorworld, and those photons are processed in a photonic chip, and rendered into a new scene, displayed as photons on someone else’s screen.  Even without a fully 100% photonic chip, the Mirrorworld requires immense amounts of rendering photons to correctly light and visualize the virtual layers. The Mirrorworld and even the metaverse will be primarily photonic realm, with zillions of photons zipping around, being sensed, and then re-created. It will be the Photonic Age.