One hundred years of innovation

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The Optical Society (OSA) is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. Electro Optics spoke to Dr Gregory Quarles, chief scientist at OSA, on 100 years of optics and photonics, and what the next 100 years holds for the industry

What have been the most important discoveries in photonics over the last 100 years?

The invention of the laser is up there as one of the greatest achievements in the field of photonics over the last 100 years. Another big discovery in terms of impacting everyday life is high-speed internet. Fibre optic communication is a tremendous enhancement to life as we know it.

Non-invasive medical imaging techniques have come a long way in 100 years, whether that’s microscopy, endoscopy or other techniques using visible light, x-rays or other forms of radiation. These techniques have led to us living longer and healthier lives, as doctors can diagnose conditions without having to resort to intrusive surgery.

What technologies using photonics will emerge over the next 100 years?

In the next 100 years, devices that fall within the broad category of Internet of Things (IoT) are really going to play a role in our lives that we probably can’t even envision fully at this point, all enabled by optics and photonics. There are going to be a lot of sociological impacts resulting from IoT connectivity. From a scientific standpoint, IoT is starting to have limited visibility today; it will change drastically in the next 100 years.

There will be advances in optical communication and the speed at which large amounts of data can be moved. There’s a lot of work underway deploying greater than 5G Ethernet backbone; there’s a line laid between Paris and Frankfurt experimenting with 100G. In the next 100 years we’ve got to surpass that 100G mark, as well as having larger server farms powered by solar and other renewable resources. Many of the telecommunication groups that will be present at the OFC conference in March in Anaheim, California are really looking at what has to happen from an optics and photonics and an electronics standpoint for networks to be able to handle large amounts of data.

One of the challenges is to integrate photonic components onboard electronic chips. There’s work taking place in the EU as part of Horizon 2020, Asia, and in the US through the National Photonics Initiative on building photonics-based integrated circuits to get faster computer chips and overcome some of the bottlenecks currently present in electronic ICs. The Aim Photonics initiative, a public-private partnership in the US, looks to give industry, government and academia access to photonic integrated circuit manufacturing infrastructure. The OSA is exploring this technology through some of its incubator meetings and conferences, and a lot of researchers are publishing potential component-based solutions to move towards an all photonics-based application.

Another emerging field that will become more prominent in the next 50 to 100 years is going to be user-enabled biomedical diagnostics. Wearable technology is now available that can monitor heart rate and other physiological characteristics. In the future, there are going to be opportunities to use biosensors built into wearable devices in telemedicine applications. We’re seeing a lot of basic research published in OSA journals and we have incubator meetings looking at some of these wearable technologies – there’s work going on in Eindhoven and that the EU Commission is funding, for instance. The type of sensing might include monitoring daily blood sugar levels, chemical and biological changes through the skin, and monitoring the ADP energy cycle. In the future, systems might be able to use this information to give feedback to physicians on a near immediate basis and look for trends that could affect your health.

A lot of those sensors are in place or being developed today. Understanding the biophysical mechanisms and how to monitor these with biosensors is still a decade away. A 100G Ethernet backbone is probably going to be one of the critical steps as well because this kind of telemedicine system will generate huge volumes of data that have to be transmitted, analysed and stored. Keeping this data secure is just as important, and that goes hand in hand with optics and photonics.

Biomedical diagnostics is a now becoming a reality and is something that’s enhancing our lives, maybe silently, to diagnose medical conditions earlier. These are the kinds of things that will shape our lives that we probably don’t realise now, but will have a positive impact on the global community.

What technology will become a reality in the near future?

In the next five to ten years, there’s going to be movement towards curing blindness from retinal disease. There are multiple groups investigating artificial retinas and it stems from work carried out years ago – Smith and Boyle won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for the invention of the CCD sensor (Charles Kao was the third recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for work on optical fibres for communication). This work has been built on to design optical-based retinal implants that return some sight to the individual, essentially like putting a small CCD camera in the eye. There’s work taking place in Dublin, Newcastle, and in US through the national institutes of health, looking at how these pixelated imaging systems can be implanted in the eye.

There are 120 million rods and six to seven million cones in the retina. The imaging systems that are currently under investigation have around 1,000 pixels. One thousand pixels can discern contrast between light and dark areas, but facial recognition isn’t possible or reading fine print in a book. Higher resolution is needed to do that, but the first steps are underway. There are more than 100 individuals testing out these artificial retinas.

In the next 10 years, I think you are going to see these devices being implanted by eye surgeons to return some degree of sight to patients suffering from impaired vision. In the next 100 years you’re going to see full blown camera imaging systems that will be interfaced directly into the visual cortex. We’re a long way off from that at the moment, but in taking these first steps, you’ve gone from CCD cameras 30 years ago to small imaging systems, to now being able to interface the sensors into the nervous system. The fact that those who are blind or have impaired vision have the hope of being able to see again, that to me is tremendously exciting research. The whole biomedical area is one that’s open for a great deal of optics and photonics-based research moving into the next 100 years.

What is the greatest challenge faced by the photonics industry?

I think the number one challenge continues to be education. We need to push industry and academia and government laboratories to continue to fund early education in the sciences, to continue to fund graduate level research and undergraduate level research in science, and to stimulate these really bright minds that we have around the world to want to work in this field and make these revolutionary breakthroughs.

There was a lot of outreach work done last year as part of the International Year of Light, and as we move into the OSA’s centennial in 2016 this will continue. OSA has education outreach, student participation, and contests looking at what really is enabled by optics – what optics are in a cell phone, for instance. The cameras in cell phones today would cost €150-200 not even five years ago for a handheld camera with similar resolutions. This is enabled by optics. Getting people to realise this is part of our mission.

The OSA also has committees on public policy and advocacy. We’re trying to educate the political side, the parties that are responsible for funding initiatives, but also the public to understand that education in jobs in optics and photonics plays a strong part in impacting a country’s gross domestic product. The amount of consumption in the optics and photonics market is vast. Getting in front of government committees and global leaders to get them to think about ways to enhance the education opportunities for students to bring science in as part of the education at elementary school level, and encourage students to continue in these fields is really critical for countries’ growth. That’s something that we’re trying to do with our foundation programme and the OSA programmes. It takes global outreach and all our members working together to try and drive these initiatives.

Advocacy for education and funding at all levels is critical. We need to continue to push for not cutting science funding when budgets get tight, to look for opportunities to get students into summer intern programmes to help them see what it’s like to work in a government lab or in industry or do research at a university, and that takes funding and outreach.

Interview by Greg Blackman


The Optical Society in 2016

The Optical Society’s centennial advisory panel, chaired by Dr Chris Dainty, professorial research associate at the Institute of Ophthalmology, University College London, have been working with staff and OSA volunteers to develop a year-long series of programmes and products to commemorate 100 years. These include a quarterly booklet series in Optics and Photonics News (OPN), the launch of a centennial microsite, ‘Century of Optics’ and ‘OSA 100’ books, and celebrations at US and international meetings including FiO, The Optical Fibre Communication Conference and Exhibition (OFC) and Latin America Optics and Photonics Conference (LAOP). Other centennial activities will feature the unveiling of a special exhibit, giveaways, receptions, travel grants, travelling lectures and more.

Throughout 2016, the society will invite visionaries, futurists, Nobel Prize winners and others in the optics and photonics fields to join the ‘Light the Future Speakers Series’. These discussions — open to the public — will be part of several meetings in the United States and across the globe, offering an opportunity to hear directly from those that are paving the way for another century of innovation in light, such as one of the world’s leading futurists Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and trustee of MIT Corporation, and Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York (CUNY), Princeton University and New York University, as well as co-creator of string field theory.

Further information: 

The Optical Society