The Internet Is the Brick Wall Nostradamus Didn’t See Coming

The road maps Lightwave Logic is creating for the future of photonics will guide people toward the focus areas and the technology challenges they can expect as performance demands increase.

The 16th-century French astrologer Nostradamus reputedly looked hundreds of years into the future to prophesize the pivotal events shaping humanity. Somehow, he overlooked the internet.

The noted clairvoyant is credited for providing timestamped prophecies of global-scale catalysts, from the rise and fall of beloved leaders and genocidal dictators to the threat of global warming and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet what many believe to be the apex of human evolution eluded Nostradamus: the proliferation of the internet and the dawn of the Information Age. In fairness, it would have been difficult for even the most talented seer to predict the speed at which information metamorphosed into a commodity. However, since the very early days of the internet, futurists who envisioned a time when communication could need to be delivered and consumed anywhere at any time began charting road maps to get people there. Thankfully, as with most organizations today, the predictions likely relied on more than clairvoyance to prepare for what is coming next, including the technologies they’ll need to thrive as the internet evolves.

The broadband industry significantly increased information infrastructure efficiency by transmitting more data at higher speeds and with less power, but as the internet matures, carefully considering what it will look like in the decades to come is necessary.

Today, fiber optic cables connect billions of endpoints around the world, providing a meshlike structure to transport the data people send and receive from computers, mobile phones, tablets and a growing array of internet of things (IoT) devices. Today’s networks move data at speeds once unimaginable. Unfortunately, bandwidth already falls short of consumer and commercial device connectivity demand, including the growing array of devices powering critical, time-sensitive applications.

Acolytes in some circles may hold on to a belief that Nostradamus had supernatural superpowers, but modern scholars are more apt to tell you he might have just had a firm grip on the fact that history tends to repeat itself. Similarly, organizations can more effectively prepare for the future of the internet by relying on the lessons they learn today. One of the best examples to support this has been the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors created by the semiconductor trade group ITRS. The resource has divined the future of technology for more than three decades through continually updated prophecies on how trends will affect the brains of modern electronics and semiconductors.

Nostradamus would likely be impressed at the level of influence the road map imparts on decision-making among influential organizations. The most recognized technological enlightenment is the organization’s “Red Brick Wall” predictions of the challenges that increase in tandem with performance achievements. The report enables organizations to brace for change and transform the challenges ahead into opportunities for innovation.    

The photonics industry has spent an equal amount of time examining the impact of the internet and the critical components utilized in optical networking – lasers, modulators, photodetectors, photonic integrated circuits, polymers and material platforms such as dielectrics. The precognition of the photonics industry 20 to 30 years into the future takes a noncompetitive perspective of where technology is headed and, importantly, what life will be like for future end users, such as data centers, telecom hubs and network operators.

The broadband industry is doing well, providing the innovation that enables upgrading and improving the performance of optical network systems. It’s preparing them for what is rapidly approaching in the not-too-distant future.

Lightwave Logic’s road maps may be too technical, and photonics futurists could better convey to field-level engineering teams how things will evolve. Some may read and approach Nostradamus’ doomsday prophecies as nebulous and left wide open to interpretation, but the road maps Lightwave Logic is creating for the future of photonics will guide people toward the focus areas and the technology challenges they can expect as performance demands increase.

The “Purple Brick Walls” I pioneered and created while at OIDA in the early 2000s illustrate the photonics challenges that lie ahead and may not paint the most alarming picture. Still, they plot the technologies needed to meet technical-performance requirements and cost-performance requirements. It’s possible to point to a pending obstruction and effectively determine whether end users will have the technology solution needed to continue moving forward, meet performance requirements, and estimate the cost required to complete the objective. Imagine this in the automobile market for the price of petroleum or gas: Will people use cars if gas becomes 100 times more expensive? Looking into the future through this lens shows whether end users can effectively meet the cost-performance requirement.

Electro-Optic Polymer Road Map

The naturally high performance of electro-optic (EO) polymers can be harnessed to allow faster, more efficient data transmission in optical networking and the internet. The implementation of EO modulators satisfies critical criteria of high data rates. Today presages the future need for low power consumption, tiny footprints and the potential upside of performance in demand through the next decade. These upside performance drivers of EO polymer technology will be essential enablers over the next decade:

  • The ability to run data at least an order or magnitude (or 10X) data rates today
  • The ability to lower power consumption an order of magnitude (or 10X)
  • The need for ultra-small, miniaturized devices for increased-density layouts

Over the past five years, EO polymers have been a critical component of photonics-based datacom road maps, and that will continue well into the future.

Figure 1. A hybrid PIC photonic integrated circuit is a recipe for mixing technologies to improve overall performance.

Datacom Photonics Road Maps

To effectively interpret the latest hybrid PIC datacom road map, the basis of how the road map is synthesized is essential, beginning with a definition of a hybrid PIC from the photonics perspective. Figure 1 shows graphs of a hybrid PIC photonic integrated circuit that is not a pure-play semiconductor. It is a recipe for mixing technologies to improve the overall performance of the PIC.  

At the left side of the graph (shaded in red) is indium phosphide semiconductor material, an incumbent technology platform for PICs. Silicon photonics is on the right side of the chart (shaded in green), an incumbent technology platform based on silicon for PICs. Though these PIC platforms have delivered relative success over the past decade as pure-play platforms, they need more modulator performance. Silicon is primarily regarded as impractical for laser emission in commercial products. Mixing and matching photonic materials such as EO polymers and dielectrics into these incumbent platforms has enabled much higher performance in PIC design (as shown in the center of the chart).  

Figure 2. This technology road map for hybrid PICs in datacom applications conveys technology trends, challenges and opportunities over the next two decades.

The role of EO polymers for hybrid PICs can be seen in more detail in Figure 2. This is the current version of the continually updated datacom road map for mixed PICs. The road map provides an insight into expectations and performance demands for hybrid PICs over the next couple of decades with technological metrics that are engineering imperatives for improving and optimizing the efficiency and capability of the internet.

Figure 2 shows an axis that includes product performance utilizing PIC platforms and some essential materials and device technologies in component design.

In the top left green box (see A in Figure 2) are fiber optic transceiver modules shown with key specification parameters, such as data rate density and form factor. In the next green box (see B in Figure 2), transceiver link reach and cost per data rate in terms of dollars per Gbps are forecasted. This detail includes cost estimates for a typical end user, such as a data center, and users who may prefer to pay in volume for transceiver products. Also included is a look at the industry plan to achieve that, which typically is a higher metric of dollars per Gbps than the end user or customer’s request. This customer pull is familiar in datacom as the industry drives for higher performance and lower cost. The next lower green box (see C in Figure 2) shows transceiver products utilizing a shorter optical link length with much more stringent dollars per Gbps metrics because volumes for more temporary links are higher than for longer links.  

On the lower part of the vertical axis are technologies that enable the performance of the transceiver modules and are categorized in actives, meaning they require an electrical stimulus to provide optical functions such as modulators (see D in Figure 2). That box also contains passives, which provide optical functionality without electrical stimulus, such as optical waveguides, multiplexers, couplers, etc. (see E in Figure 2).  

The horizontal axis is time in years and stretches out over the next decade in detail. The following decade is on the right side of the road map.  The road map shows forecast performance improvements and expectations from left to right.

The yellow box (see F in Figure 2) is the key to reading the technology road map. Black font, seen mainly from 2022 to 2026, represents the average R&D by the commercial industry to develop products. The red font, which can be seen mostly from 2026 onward, represents significant industry efforts for commercialization that are over and above-average R&D spending. These efforts may be industry-funded, such as moonshot or multiplayer consortium programs, or they can be innovative initiatives by the government, such as the Chips Act of 2022.  

The key also contains the definition of the road map’s Purple Brick Wall and notes that it is a “technology cost barrier.” As technologies progress in maturity and performance from left to right using the horizontal axis in time, each technology will experience some Purple Brick Wall that needs to be mitigated for that technology to keep progressing in performance.

Signs Nostradamus May Have Missed

One essential aspect of the road map is positioning the Purple Brick Walls. For example, the uppermost Purple Brick Wall is set in 2026 for transceiver modules as the product performance is expected to exceed 1,600 Gbps or 1.6 Gbps. Today, the current state-of-the-art standard is figuring out how to design transceivers with this level of performance. What components and materials technologies will be required to improve the transceiver performance beyond a Purple Brick Wall needs to be clarified. Therefore, data rates of 3.2, 6.4, and 12.8 Tbps are noted in red font to the right of the Purple Brick Wall.  

The upper horizontal white bar (see G in Figure 2) represents transceiver data rate evolution over the next two decades toward 50.4 Tbps and gives the data rate density per rack unit or area cross section on the front of the server/router panel. The data rate density will reach a Purple Brick Wall in 2027 with 100 Tbps/1U. Exceeding this metric will require significant industry effort, as denoted by the red font; the road map predicts an increase in data rate density to 800 Tbps/1U. The third part of the first horizontal bar includes the typical form that transceivers will utilize. Though octal, small form factor pluggable (OSFP), onboard optics (OBO) and co-packaged optics (CP) are choices today, the road map predicts the Purple Brick Wall to be in the 2027 and 2028 time frame. It expects these form factors to reduce size toward a micro-form factor, as denoted in the red font by Micro-OSFP/OBO/CP.

The second horizontal white bar (see H in Figure 2) examines the transceiver fiber optic link’s distance and the cost per data rate in dollars per Gbps. There are two metrics for dollars per Gbps: the first is what end users and customers, such as data centers in the communications community, expect to pay. The second is what the industry expects to achieve. This horizontal bar shows that if end users want a 2km transceiver optical link for $0.50/Gbps at 800 Gbps, then this translates to a transceiver link (two transceivers – one at each end) for $800 by 2025. The line below indicates that the industry plan is roughly $0.50/Gbps by 2025, which is approximately $1,600 for the two transceiver modules. Though the road map does not answer whether end users would purchase transceiver modules for $1,600, it guides the industry to decide what level of effort and performance is needed to secure business from end users.

The third lower horizontal bar (see I in Figure 2) contains the road map’s active platforms that include EO polymer modulators. EO polymer modulators are expected to drive the optical engines for transceivers over the next decade. The first line of EO polymers shows the typical device type (slot waveguide modulator) designed for 1310 and 1550nm wavelengths, popular optical wavelengths for fiber optics (see J in Figure 2). In 2023, at these wavelengths, the EO polymer slot modulator key performance metrics are 70 GHz EO bandwidth with voltage levels of less than 1 volt. This represents more than 2X semiconductor modulators today and, depending on architectural design, perhaps an order of magnitude (10X) in power consumption savings. As the road map moves to the right, the forecasted performance of EO polymers increases to more than 100 GHz in bandwidth, with voltage levels of under 00.5 volts (see K in Figure 2). This will enable the transceiver demands by end users (1.6, 3.2Tbps, etc.) shown on the upper white horizontal bars of the exact road map (see L in Figure 2).  

The Purple Brick Wall for EO polymers is forecasted in the 2028-2029 time frame with EO bandwidths approaching 150 GHz and voltage levels below 0.5 volts (see M in Figure 2). Optical modulators with this type of performance could quickly drive data rates of 200 Gbps NRZ (a simple square wave or castellated waveform) as well as 400GBaud PAM4, which is more than double the performance of today. For example, a four-four-channel baud PAM4 modulator PIC enables 1.6 Tbps transceivers, and a highlight-channel baud PAM4 PIC could potentially be 3.2 Tbps transceivers.

The following active category directly below EO polymers includes modulators that utilize plasmonics (as well as EO polymers) in their design (see N in Figure 2). These modulators have the potential to be the fastest EO polymer modulators forecasted on the road map, with EO bandwidths that can exceed 300 GHz (see O in Figure 2). With this level of bandwidth, these devices could enable super-fast transceivers and achieve the metrics forecast over the next decade.

Figure 3. This is a technology road map for hybrid PICs in datacom applications with the overall trends for technology “Purple Brick Walls.”

Figure 3 shows the exact road map with an extra level of analysis. This purple region roughly covers all the Purple Brick Walls that have taken an approximate “S” shape (see P in Figure 3). The right-most front of this purple region is represented by EO polymer technologies such as slot and plasmonic (see Q in Figure 3). This indicates that with average R&D investment, the performance of EO polymers will exceed that of other modulator technologies. The lagging fronts of the purple region (see R and S in Figure 3) show that extra industry R&D effort is needed to achieve the forecasted metrics that datacom transceivers using hybrid PICs will require.

If Nostradamus had had the benefit of road mapping his predictions, they might have been less opaque. Today, people have the considerable advantage of a few hundred years of human advancements and a burgeoning perspective on learning from tech failures and achievements. People can accurately forecast what photonics end users want to see to improve the future and show how technologies will prevent their growth or enable the broadband industry to help them move forward.

Looking at the living hybrid PIC datacom road map, it’s possible to see that some technologies will require vast levels of investment; others, such as EO polymers, have natural attributes to ease the integration of innovative, super- high-speed transceivers. The future has always been exciting to look at. If Nostradamus could have looked into the future using the lens of today, doomsday prophecies might have looked more like road maps to improving optical networks and the internet.


Dr. Michael Lebby

Dr. Michael Lebby is the CEO of Lightwave Logic.


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