In the traveling salesman problem, a time-conscious peddler tries to find the shortest route connecting many cities. To find his solution, he must compare all possible paths—a computation that grows exponentially harder as the number of cities grows. This and other “combinatorial optimization problems” are ubiquitous in business, science, and engineering, and researchers are exploring novel approaches to solve them. But a promising tactic is to map these problems to a statistical model for interacting spins known as the Ising model, which is then solved on a special processor known as an Ising machine. Davide Pierangeli and colleagues at the University of Rome have now realized the largest photonic version of such a machine by representing more than ten thousand spins with a spatially modulated light field [1]. Compared to existing machines, theirs is easier to scale up to accommodate many more spins. With larger machines, researchers could potentially tackle complex optimization problems, such as determining how a protein folds based on its amino acid sequence.

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