Teleporting will just have to wait

The switching on of the Southern Cross cable last week has thrown the spotlight on the wonders of optical communications and computing.

The switching on of the Southern Cross cable last week has thrown the spotlight on the wonders of optical communications and computing.

At a press conference where Telecom head Theresa Gattung enthused about the company's $1 billion investment in the fibre-optic cable - Telecom is 50% owner of the New Zealand-Australia-US link - a cable sample was passed around. Incredibly - for the non-physics professors among us, at least - the three pairs of glass strands that make up the business part of the cable have capacity for every New Zealander to call the US simultaneously, and then some.

And this is only gigabit technology. Next-generation cables, which are already in the planning, will have capacity measured in terabits. Can anyone tell me why, when Southern Cross was sunk in the sea for its 30,500km length, they didn't bung in a few dozen more fibre strands on the off-chance that we might be able to use the extra?

The promise all that bandwidth holds for telecommunications is phenomenal. Combined with increasingly affordable wide area networking services like DSL (digital subscriber line; available from Telecom as JetStream), the internet begins to sound interesting once more. Instead of oohing and aahing at static web pages, we'll be watching full-screen, full-motion video. That, at least, is what Gattung and the rest of the Southern Cross sales team is telling us.

The other side of the optical story is the development of computers that use light rather than electricity. They might also use organic materials, as logic controllers and memory devices. Will this cause a further round of debate about the feasibility of creating a kind of living, thinking machine? I can't say I believe in the notion.

Miniaturisation is the battle in building optical computers. It's a challenge, also, in the interim hybrid electro-optical computers that will appear before the all-optical world is on us. These hybrids will be built with on-chip miniature lasers and detectors controlled by electronics.

The same principle that allows the Southern Cross owners to speculate that their cable might eventually have more than double its initial bandwidth makes the potential of optical computing mind-boggling. Light has the advantage over electrical communications of not generating cross-talk between wires or requiring insulation, so frequencies can be multiplexed to - in the cable example - vastly boost bandwidth and - in an optical computer - achieve parallelism.

The only constraint on how we use all that power will be the human imagination - or at least, that's what the brochures will say.

As with the arrival of all good things, however, there's still some waiting involved. Crucial components - logic gates and other bits with unfamiliar names (bistable devices; also known as flip-flops) - haven't been designed yet. Too bad.

In the meantime, what have we got? We have Intel's Pentium 4, its latest processor (but not yet the 64-bit Itanium, which will be launched this week. And we have Southern Cross. But teleporting across the universe will have to wait just a bit.

Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Letters for publication should be sent to cw_letters@idg.co.nz.

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