Inside a small laboratory in Boston’s seaport district, buried within a jumble of lasers, lenses, mirrors, and a tangle of wiring, is a tiny chip that might be about to have a big impact on the world of artificial intelligence.

The lab belongs to Lightelligence, a startup that’s developing a radically new kind of AI accelerator chip. Instead of using electrons to carry out the core mathematical computations needed for machine learning, the company’s prototype device uses light.

In theory, transferring information at the speed of light means such a device could let AI algorithms run hundreds of times faster than today’s best AI chips. Since raw computer power makes such a difference in machine learning, this could mean vastly more powerful and capable algorithms. In practice, though, the speed of the optical chip will depend on how quickly it can interact with conventional components, like a computer’s memory. And Lightelligence needs to write algorithms that can wring as much speed out of the setup as possible.

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