Editorial: Optoelectronics in the 21st century

Enclosed with this issue of Laser Focus World you will find a special supplement entitled Technology for the New Millennium (if you didn't get a copy, e-mail Carole Root at caroler@pennwell.com and she'll send you one).

Enclosed with this issue of Laser Focus World you will find a special supplement entitled Technology for the New Millennium (if you didn't get a copy, e-mail Carole Root at caroler@pennwell.com and she'll send you one). The supplement is a compilation of articles from the editors of each of the magazines that comprise PennWell's Communications and Optoelectronics Group. We hope that you will find their contributions stimulating.

Because the Technology for the New Millennium supplement appears this month, the editors of Laser Focus World decided not to devote this January issue exclusively to millennial topics. Leaving aside the argument that the third millennium actually starts on January 1, 2001, we felt that you may be suffering from a surfeit of speculation. However, I can't resist making a few speculative comments on the possible impact of optoelectronics in the 21st century.

Bandwidth will be free

First, as Lightwave editorial director Stephen Hardy says in his feature article, "bandwidth will be free." Two things will conspire to make this a reality: fiberoptics will spread to the "last mile," that is, to connect the home and office to the global network. In addition, we will see optical computers handling the switching of the global network so that communications will be entirely optical. But the last few yards will be wireless, most likely infrared, inside homes and offices. The distinction between home and office will become increasingly blurred as "free" bandwidth will make visual conferencing much cheaper than commuting to an office.

Second, as Laser Focus World executive editor Steve Anderson implies in his article, the capabilities of semiconductor lasers will increase dramatically. Blue lasers with almost infinite lifetimes will become commonplace and extremely cheap. In fact, there's every reason to suppose that there will eventually be a full range of semiconductor lasers that will cover the entire optical spectrum from deep-ultraviolet to far-infrared. Similarly, output powers will range from microwatts to kilowatts as demand spurs materials development and fabrication techniques.

Third, we will see much greater integration of optical semiconductors. Microprocessors will routinely incorporate lasers and detectors for direct interfacing with optical local and personal area networks. The all-optical microprocessor will bring about as great a revolution as the integrated circuit has done to the later decades of the 20th century. Holographic optical memories will make magnetic and optical disk storage obsolete.

Fourth, inexpensive, simple vision systems will become ubiquitous. As I noted earlier, video-conferencing will become cheap enough for all of us to use extensively. Cheap CCD cameras and inexpensive flat-panel displays will be everywhere. Iris identification systems will secure unique entry to homes, offices, and cars. PIN numbers will become unnecessary. Flexible vision-assisted manufacturing systems will be the norm in automated fabrication plants: the "lights-out" factory will become economically feasible. Cumbersome machine tools will be replaced by automated industrial lasers that can be trained to new tasks in a fraction of the time required to retool today's machine tools.

Fifth, optical methods will make medical diagnosis and therapy faster and more precise. Already, we are seeing x-ray imaging and storage systems that will render the traditional film processes obsolete. Endoscopic techniques will make open-wound surgery unnecessary except, perhaps, for major organ transplantation. The combination of optical diagnosis methods and video-conferencing will make medical examinations possible remotely: the "house call" may once again appear on the doctor's medical agenda.

Opportunities will abound

Space does not permit me to cover other exciting areas of optoelectronics application, such as transportation and entertainment, but the opportunities are boundless. For engineers and scientists, these potential developments will lead to exciting possibilities in research, development, and application, to say nothing of the entrepreneurial opportunities that will undoubtedly arise. Optoelectronics will be to the 21st century what electronics has been to the 20th century. Today, the advice as offered to the young Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 movie The Graduate would not be "plastics!" but rather "optoelectronics!"

Jeffrey Bairstow
Group Editorial Director
jbairstow@pennwell.com

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