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Harnessing () the Speed of Light


When American engineer Alan Huang revealed his plans to build an optical computer, most scientists considered this idea as hopeless. It was impractical, if not possible, they said, to create a general-purpose computer that could use pulses of light rather than electrical signals to process data. During one of the scientist's lectures on the subject, a third of the audience walked out. At another one, some of the scientists laughed, calling the researcher a dreamer.

That was several years ago. Now the scientist demonstrated his experimental computing machine based on optics. It took him five years to develop it. The device a collection of lasers, lenses and prisms can serve as the basis for future optical computers 100 to 1,000 times as powerful as today's most advanced supercomputers. The potential applications are remarkable: robots that can see, computers that can design aircraft, processors that can convert spoken words into written text and vice versa. Such practical optical computers are still years away some would say light-years.

Yet many scientists are predicting that the device will have an impact similar to that of the integrated circuit which made small personal computers possible.

Photons, the basic unit of light beams, can in theory be much better than electrons for moving signals through a computer. First of all, photons can travel about the times as fast as electrons. And while electrons react with one another, beams of photons, which have no mass or charge, can cross through one another without interference. Thus, photons can move in free space. This could open the door to radically new and different computer designs, including so-called parallel processors that could work on more than one problem at a time instead of one after another, as today's new generation computers do.

 

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SUPPLEMENTARY TEXTS

. 263

To be read after Lesson 5

How Transistors Work

Microprocessors are essential to many of the products we use every day such as TVs, cars, radios, home appliances and of course, computers. Transistors are the main components of microprocessors. At their most basic level, transistors may seem simple. But their development actually required many years of thorough research. Before transistors, computers relied on slow, inefficient vacuum tubes and mechanical switches to process information. In 1958, engineers put two transistors onto a silicon crystal and created the first integrated circuit that led to the microprocessor. Here on a tiny silicon chip there are millions of switches and pathways that help computers make important decisions and perform helpful tasks.

Transistors are miniature electronic switches. They are the building blocks of the microprocessor which is the brain of the computer. Similar to a basic light switch, transistors have two operating positions, on and off. This on/off function enables the processing of information in a computer.

The only information computers understand are electrical signals that are switched on and off. To understand how transistors work, it is necessary to have an understanding of how a switched electronic circuit works. Switched electronic circuits consist of several parts. One is the circuit pathway where the electrical current flows typically through a wire. Another is the switch, a device that starts and stops the flow of electrical current by either completing or breaking the circuit's pathway. Transistors have no moving parts and are turned on and off by electrical signals. The on/off switching of transistors facilitates the work performed by microprocessors.

Something that has only two states, like a transistor, can be referred to as binary. The transistor's on state is represented by a 1 and the off state is represented by a 0. Specific sequences and patterns of l's and 0's generated by multiple transistors can represent letters, numbers, colours and graphics. This is known as binary notation.

More complex information can be created such as graphics, audio and video using the binary, or on/off action of transistors.

Many materials, such as most metals, allow electrical current to flow through them. These are known as conductors. Materials that do not allow electrical current to flow through them are called insulators. Pure silicon, the base material of most transistors, is considered a semiconductor because its conductivity can be modulated by the introduction of impurities.

Adding certain types of impurities () to the silicon in a transistor changes its crystalline structure and improves its ability to conduct electricity.

The binary function of transistors gives microprocessors the ability to perform many tasks; from simple word processing to video editing. Microprocessors have developed to a point where transistors can carry out hundreds of millions of instructions per second on a single chip. Automobiles, medical devices, televisions, computers and even the Space Shuttle use microprocessors. They all rely on the flow of binary information made possible by the transistor.

 

 

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SUPPLEMENTARY TEXTS

. 262

To be read after Lesson 5



: 2016-07-23

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