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Advances in metamaterials that can manipulate light could lead to the re-birth of analog computing.

The advent of all-purpose digital computers in the mid-20th Century was revolutionary as abstracting the input data allowed digital computers to be multi-purposed, meaning they could be reprogramed to perform multiple types of calculations, unlike their purpose-built analog predecessors.

Though analog computers still had an advantage in not having to translate, quantize and digitise the information they were calculating, their mechanical and electronic makeup could not compete with the advances in integrated electronic circuits that allowed digital computers to rapidly shrink their footprints and boost their speed.

But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, The University of Texas at Austin and University of Sannio in Italy, have now shown that metamaterials – composites of natural materials designed to manipulate electromagnetic waves – can be designed to do "photonic calculus" as a light wave goes through them.

The researchers' theoretical material, outlined in the journal Science, can perform a specific mathematical operation on a light wave's profile, such as finding its first or second derivative, as the light wave passes through the material.

Shining a light wave on one side of such a material would result in that wave profile's derivative exiting the other side – a near instantaneous computational operation.

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