Intel's Optical Breakthrough Downloads an HD Film in a Second, Literally

Transfer a song to your phone. Seems pretty fast, right? Now imagine transferring the entire printed catalog of the Library of Congress in a minute and a half. Intel says they've got the technology to make it happen (eventually).

Intel detailed their breakthrough to the press at an event today, marking the milestone of impressive 50 gigabits per second transfer speeds using an underlying technology that could go much, much further. We've covered the promise of fiber optic speeds before, but nothing like this. Intel CTO Justin Rattner explained just what "silicon photonics" even means, why the world needs it, and what it promises in the near future.

Silicon photonics is, simply, the combination of optical technology with traditional silicon chip manufacturing techniques—the same processes used to make all of our CPUs and GPUs. By employing existing methods, turning data into light and back again will be affordable.

The fundamental process is that of transferring data by converting electrons—which are what make the device you're reading this on right now work—into photons. Intel's photonic technology uses a dazzling bit of engineering—and I do mean dazzling, as we're on the scale of your fingernail—to encode data into laser streams. These streams converge into one, and travel along a fiberoptic strand to their destination, where they are decoded from light back into electrons.

Intel's Optical Breakthrough Downloads an HD Film in a Second, Literally

Why would we need anything as complicated and sophisticated as this? The fact of the matter is that we're nearing the limit of what we can do with electrons—and there's no arguing with physics. Once we get in the realm of 10 gigabit transfer speeds, we've pushed copper wiring about as far as it will go without degrading the signal beyond usefulness. And with the mind boggling volume of data swirling around—HD movies, lossless audio, high resolution photos—what might sound excessive today will be essential sooner than we think.

Intel's fiber connection, on the other hand, can take us farther and faster. Immensely so. At the speed Intel has announced today, you could download an HD film from iTunes or 100 hours of music in less than a second. And if they reach their theoretical potential of 1 terabit per second, you could slurp down three seasons of an HD show or backup your entire harddrive in the same amount of time.

Intel's Optical Breakthrough Downloads an HD Film in a Second, Literally

Rattner said Intel hopes to have silicon photonics "widely deployed" by mid-decade, though holding one's breath in cases like this is usually a bad idea. We asked Intel, after hearing them tout the advantages silicon photonics offers for consumer devices, whether we could expect to see this technology replacing USB within this timeframe, prompting them to stress that the significance of the breakthrough is in its potential, not its concrete applications—commercial adoption will hinge on the market and manufacturing factors. Still, they have proven the technology works, and works well. For now, I can safely say that they have preemptively ruined USB 3.0 for me. [Intel Silicon Photonics Research]