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Illuminati Ponder the Future of Light

Photonics Spectra
Nov 1999
Daniel C. McCarthy

More than 200 people convened at Boston University recently to get a perspective on the future of photonics. The event was the third annual Future of Light symposium hosted by the school's Photonics Center, a resource described by Chancellor John Silber as an incubator for commercial photonic ventures. While technological development has always been a US strong point, he maintained, transfer into commercial applications has been a weakness.

The symposium assembled leaders from telecommunications, imaging, biotechnology and other fields to deliver views on the state of the art in photonics as well as cast some predictions about the next five years.

Economic policy-makers had come to understand that technology is a driver for the US economy, said Joshua Gotbaum, executive associate director of President Clinton's Office of Management and Budget and the day's first speaker. This is not news to the assembled technocrats, he said, but as a consequence, macro-economists are changing their models to account for research and technical knowledge as drivers and not the beneficiaries of market growth.

Fred Welsh, executive director of the US-based Optoelectronics Industry Development Association, echoed Gotbaum's observations: "If you're just looking at the growth of [Internet] users, you wouldn't see the growth in bandwidth demand. That comes from growth in applications."

New and anticipated Internet applications help to account for the rate at which new fiber is being laid, which, according to Thomas Koch, chief technical officer at Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J., is enough to circle the globe twice a day. "You have visions of a backhoe outstripping a SR-71 Blackbird," he said.

Among the challenges to growth that Koch listed are the development of 1000 x 1000 cross-connects, reconfigurable add/drop multiplexers, wavelength-selective laser transponders and broadband filters. He envisions multiterabit networks, systems on a chip and cost reductions that enable ultrahigh bandwidth all the way to the edge of the network.

Speaker Paul Suchoski, vice president of JDS Uniphase Corp. in San Jose, Calif., agreed, predicting that reductions in the price per databit would allow T1 lines to start connecting small offices and residences by 2002. He foresaw this being fueled by corporate mergers as much as by component development. His assessment of required component developments included widely tunable lasers.

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