“Ask Me Anything” and They Did! My Dive into Reddit and Discussions on Today’s Optical Technologies

“Ask Me Anything” and They Did! My Dive into Reddit and Discussions on Today’s Optical Technologies

By Alan Willner


In early July, I ventured onto a platform of the internet that was completely new to me -- Reddit. While I have worked in high technology for my entire career, I do not participate much in social media – and a Reddit discussion was something that I never expected to host. That being said, I logged on that early July morning to a full list of questions in the queue. I was thrilled to see so many people excited to learn more about optical communications.

As you may know, optical communications touches nearly every aspect of our daily lives – from our smartphones to medicine and the Internet. Originally, I wanted to be a patent attorney. However, my engineering studies at Columbia led me into optics and to Bell Labs – and then on to the Univ. of Southern California as a professor. I’ve been fascinated by optics ever since. My research throughout my career has focused on optical technologies, including in communications, signal processing, networks and fiber optics.

As many of you know, I’ve been involved with The Optical Society (OSA) for the past 30 years. It has been a great privilege to serve our community as OSA’s President this year as we are celebrating our 100th birthday and a century of optics innovation and inventors. The science of light has revolutionized the way we communicate, and the future has even more advances in store. Here were a few of the questions and my responses from the AMA:

  • What do you think is a promising application of photonics in the future? I am entering graduate school on the field this September and would like to hear your thoughts! —Katsudon863

    AW: It is hard to "predict" what specific optics related field will be "hot" and promising for when you graduate. Some are generally considered vibrant fields, such as photonics for health and medicine, but a good training in optics can be used to gain employment in many different fields, especially in those that will emerge as being hot in the future. For example, one of my students worked on optical communications but then got a job working on optical coherence tomography. As far as tips for graduate school, internships can provide more breadth, volunteer engagement helps you network, and participating in OSA events can build up your base of expertise. Good luck in your career!!!

  • Integrated photonics research has been around for a while, but still nobody seems to know how to best go about achieving the seamless integration of photonics and electronics. Where do you think success lies? — fathompin

    AW: You ask a great question, and there is right now a big push to try to answer it - around the world and in the US. As an example, a national manufacturing institute called AIM Photonics was started last year in the US that had a total budget of several hundred million dollars. It is a 5 year program meant to be sustainable in the long term. It is a hard problem, one that has been thought of and pursued since the early 1970's, and the hope is that NOW is the time to make the critical manufacturing breakthroughs in this area. If all these efforts today are successful, the impact will be felt worldwide.

  • First off, great job hosting CLEO this year -- the award presentation to Bob Boyd was amazing! What future do you see in optical quantum communication? Do you think we'll see a useful quantum internet or across countries and continents in our lifetime? — seasidesarawack

  • AW: THANK YOU!! Indeed, the CLEO award ceremony was amazing. Seeing Mrs. Townes at 100 years old coming on stage to help celebrate Prof. Bob Boyd's getting the prestigious OSA Charles Townes Award (who was Bob's thesis advisor) gave me goosebumps. Seeing them together arm-in-arm captures so well the depth and meaning of our wonderful community. We have an illustrious past, a vibrant present, and an exciting future - all made possible by real and cherished people. As far as quantum communications, I think that it will play a key role in the future, but it remains to be seen whether it will be widespread or be for niche applications.

  • What do you think how the OSA will play a role in shaping the future in the next 30 years? — ThePizzaReaper

    AW: This year is OSA's Centennial celebration. The laser was only demonstrated roughly for half that time!! The future is quite bright, pun intended. If the past is any indication of what’s to come, we can anticipate breathtaking progress in basic physics, astronomy, Earth Science, and much more as OSA begins its second century. Importantly and hopefully, we will be publishing some of the best work in the field, we will host meetings announcing pioneering work, and we will advocate to our community and the general public for the long-term support of our field. We have grown in strength and impact, and this will only continue. And I hope to see you in 30 years to compare notes!!!

If the past is prologue, either the above-mentioned or other transforming advances will occur. If this happens, the exponential growth in the capacity of communications systems will enhance our ability to interact with each other, our environment, and machines in unforeseen ways. I know that I never expected to be able to interact on a platform such as Reddit when I began my career. I would strongly urge my colleagues in both academia and industry to continue to use platforms like Reddit to communicate the value of optics and photonics. In 2015, the UN declared it to be the International Year of Light. In the same year, both the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry went to optics people for optics work. This was not a one-time thing. Optics really is an essential technology for our world and will only get more so in the future. Thank you to all of you who joined me for my first AMA with Reddit!

Alan Willner is 2016 President of The Optical Society and the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chair in Engineering at USC. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, is an International Fellow of the U.K. Royal Academy of Engineering, and was Co-Chair of the U.S. National Academies Study on Optics and Photonics.

Posted: 2 August 2016 by Alan Willner

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