Digital photonics should be called
Technology pioneer Philippe
Kahn took a photo after the birth of
his daughter using a cell phone proto-
type he built. He then shared it
with 2000 friends and his family.
This was the first cell phone photo ever shot and sent (see Fig. 1).
It is one of the 100 photographs
that changed the world, accord-
ing to Life magazine.
Today, 200 million photos are
uploaded every week on Facebook
alone. Nearly 2 billion smart-
phones with an integrated camera
will be sold in 2017. Digital photon-
ics is enabling the digital world and really
should be called “disruptive photonics.”
Photonics is everywhere in our ev-
eryday life, but it is mostly invisible.
The Internet is such an example: The
amount of data on the Internet has
grown 14 million times in the past
12 years. Only through harnessing light can we manage this tremendous ongoing growth. The lifelines of our modern society and economy are made of light.
Millions of kilometers of optical fiber connect the world.
Light at work
Another example is manufacturing: here, the laser is the most
versatile tool. It has unprecedented flexibility and unequaled
precision, and the spectrum of its applications ranges from
ships to chips. Only the principles of laser lithography enable
the semiconductor industry to create structures the size of a
virus on the chips.
The leading edge today is 14 nm—the Rhino virus that
causes the common cold is twice as large. Extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography will enable chips with feature sizes of
There would be no light without photonics—lighting as a whole accounts for
around 19% of global electricity consumption. The need for energy-efficient
lighting was solved by photonics with white-light light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Light-emitting diodes’ efficiency is unmatched. When we completely switch
to LED lighting around the world, electricity consumption for lighting will have
been reduced by more than 50%, which equals savings of almost 750 million
tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year.
Completely novel microscopes are enabled by photonics as well, making
it possible to observe a living biological cell. This capability is the fundamental for us to attack many diseases, including cancer. Photonics is also
the most crucial tool in science. Lasers in different sizes enable spectroscopy or microscopy or space telescopes.
Without photonics as an enabling technology, there would be no digitalization—both go hand in hand. One example is connected light, which
will enable many new applications. Street lights will be equipped with sensors and cameras, and will be connected. They will be able to monitor air
quality and enable location services, and traffic control apps will derive
from this feature.
Communication capabilities will allow for applications such as the availability of parking spaces and guidance of autonomous vehicles to these spaces. The installed base of street lights in 2015 was around 350 million. The
infrastructure they represent is a grid we can harness! Digital light is not
about illumination—it’s about intelligence.
FIGURE 1. This picture changed the world: it
was the first photo ever shot and sent using a
cell phone. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/
Philippe Kahn; License: CC0 1.0 Universal)