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May 23, 2014

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Schoolboy charms all with computing feat

A FALLING apple led Newton to gravity, and an art class paint palette led 16-year-old Yao Yue of Shanghai to a new optical computing method that won him a first prize at the 65th Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Yao, a junior at the Jiading campus of the High School affiliated to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, took top honors in the computer science category earlier this month in the Los Angeles competition.

“I held my breath as they announced prize winners from the bottom to the top,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I won.”

Yao said an interest in computer games led him to study computer science from books of his father’s. In his high school art class one day, he noticed that red and yellow paints combined to make orange, and a lightbulb went on over his head.

“If colors apply to paints, then they can also apply to lights, which travel faster than electronic signals in traditional computers,” said Yao.

His hypothesis was that combinations of colored lights could be used to do “ternary computation” and make computers faster. Conventional computing, by contrast, uses binary computation.

Simple and bold as the idea was, proving it was harder. If successful, Yao knew a computer could be made to work 100 times faster and save more energy.

In February 2013, Yao first proposed his hypothesis to his high school comprehensive class, where students are encouraged to do innovative research. A teacher advised him to take up advanced math and physics studies, and recommend that he join the Shanghai Teenagers’ Science Club.

Between last August and September, Yao attended the club every week, listening to advice from university professors and honing his knowledge of optics.


It wasn’t all plain sailing. Several professors criticized Yao’s research, calling it unrealistic and suggesting that he abandon the idea.

“Some professors politely said the research was too difficult for a high school student, while others deemed it impossible,” Yao said. “But I’m stubborn, and I wanted to prove that I was right.”

Undaunted by his critics, Yao spent nearly eight hours a day on his research.

“I thought about day and night, turning over solutions in my mind and discarding those that seemed unfeasible,” Yao said. “I want to thank the critics. Without them, I would never have gone so far and won the prize.”

In January, Yao attended a winter science camp and passed a selection process to enter his research project in the international contest. Yao made a simple model of the optical computer and exhibited it at the Los Angeles competition.

The project summary explained that a computing speed of 300 gigahertz could be achieved with a 1 millimeter fiber and a decoder with a higher speed than existing ones.

After winning the prize, Yao has become something of a celebrity among classmates, who are now asking him to explain an idea they once dismissed.

“It’s great to share this with others,” said Yao, who loves music and plays the guitar. “I’m not a science geek, and I try to keep a balance between school work and other interests.”

Yao said he is very grateful to have parents who didn’t push him to attend “cram schools” and who encouraged him to strive for excellence.

Yao’s father is a traffic policeman, and his mother is a worker at a property management company.

Yao said he will keep doing research and hopes optical computers will someday become a reality.

“The prize recognizes me, and I don’t want to let it down.”


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