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Microsoft created the world’s first analog optical computer

AIM, Microsoft’s analog iterative engine, is built from existing components, such as the micro-LED lights and sensors we find in smartphone cameras
(photo: Chris Welsh for Microsoft)

Microsoft’s research department has unveiled the world’s first analog optical computer ready for practical applications. In collaboration with Barclays Bank, the company demonstrates the use of the unusual computer in everyday life.

One of the computer nodes works with continuous (analog) data in the form of light beams, and this is actually unique on the market, even a better solution than quantum computers, says Microsoft.

The analog optical computer presented by the company is designed for solving optimization tasks and cannot be considered a universal computing platform. However, its architecture and algorithms can be used in other areas where processing large data streams and many vector-matrix multiplications or additions are required.

The optical block or analog core of the system performs only such operations, but they do it lightning fast and without intermediate conversion of the data into a binary system.

Principle of operation of Microsoft’s analog optical system
(source: Microsoft)

A classic example of a combinatorial optimization problem that Microsoft’s AIM (Analog Iterative Machine) solves is the so-called “traveling salesman problem”. To solve this task, it is necessary to find the most profitable route that passes through the specified cities at least once and then returns to the original city.

Quantum platforms and algorithms based on quantum annealing are also good at solving such problems, but Microsoft’s platform promises to make it easier and at the scale of a small computer cabinet without all the interface horror that surrounds a typical quantum platform.

Microsoft’s idea is as follows. There is a data source – even a single computer or many computers. The data is converted into beams of light, the intensity of which will depend on the source of the information. Light from the many sources with the highest parallelism is directed to the matrix, each cell of which modulates the rays according to the selected algorithm. In this process, an analog transformation of light is obtained, which is equivalent to vector-matrix operations (multiplication or addition) in the binary system.

The result – light of a certain intensity or color – is read by the image sensor in each “window” of the matrix and is easily converted into a number for further processing or display of the result.

Microsoft’s analog optical computer fits into a standard server rack
(photo: Microsoft)

Using the example of the cooperation with Barclays, the Microsoft team showed that its system successfully solves optimization problems in processing bank transactions, which makes the AIM engine an attractive solution for financial markets.

The optical chips are part of a centimeter-scale system, and the entire platform fits into a standard server rack, so it can be installed in any institution.

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