Lightelligence unveils first optical network-on-chip processor

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Lightelligence, a US company working in photonic computing, has introduced Hummingbird, said to be the world’s first Optical Network-on-Chip (oNOC) processor that’s been designed for domain-specific artificial intelligence (AI) workloads.

Hummingbird utilises advanced vertically stacked packaging technologies to integrate a photonic chip and an electronic chip into one single package serving as the communications network for high-performance applications.

“Photonics is the solution to the critical compute scaling problem, which has become pressing as the traditional solutions struggle to keep up with the exponential growth of compute power demand spurred by breakthroughs in the AI industry,” said Yichen Shen, the company’s CEO. “Hummingbird demonstrates how the industry can address the scaling problem by incorporating photonic technologies into their next-generation product.”

Hummingbird is Lightelligence’s second product in its photonic computing portfolio. Its Photonic Arithmetic Computing Engine (PACE) platform released in late-2021 fully integrates photonics and electronics in a small form factor leveraging custom 3D packaging and co-design.

Hummingbird is the first in a family of products that utilise Lightelligence’s oNOC platform, which significantly improves computing performances by enabling innovative interconnect topologies via silicon photonics. Its waveguides propagate signals at the speed of light and utilise an all-to-all data broadcast network to each core on a 64-core domain-specific AI processor chip, giving Hummingbird significant advantages in terms of both latency and power reduction over traditional digital interconnect solutions.

In oNOC, power and latency are virtually unaffected by distance, making the technology suitable for developing new and more robust topologies that do not rely on nearest neighbour communication. These types of topologies enable higher utilisation of compute power even in a single electronic IC configuration due to more efficient communication.

With oNOC, mapping workloads to hardware becomes easier and provides greater freedom to select the right topology for the computing task.

With Hummingbird, Lightelligence has implemented a low-latency optical all-to-all broadcast network spanning 64 cores. With 64 transmitters and 512 receivers, Hummingbird provides a framework to implement a variety of dense optical network topologies.

Hummingbird’s electronic and photonic ICs are co-packaged and integrated into a PCIe form factor ready for installation in industry-standard servers. Coupled with the Lightelligence Software Development Kit (SDK), machine learning and AI workloads can be optimised to take full advantage of the oNOC. oNOC and Hummingbird IP can also be customized for other unique workloads and applications.

Future generations of Hummingbird will employ reticle-stitching to support chiplet architectures to enable better scalability, improve energy efficiency, and further reduce bottlenecks.

Lightelligence said that it was actively signing development partners to sample Hummingbird-based PCIe add-in cards along with Lightelligence's SDK in Q3 2023.