“We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fastest possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons travelling molecular distances, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”
The Optical Computers technology is unique in SMAC. It is a third-tier pure scientific technology that requires Applied Physics and Polymorphic Software to research. But the weird thing about it is that it doesn’t actually do anything immediately. It unlocks no new facilities, weapons, secret projects, or novel forms of social organization. It’s just sort of there in the tech tree.
This serves as an interesting backdrop to the quote itself, which is a pretty straightforward explanation of a theoretical advance in computer technology. The really interesting thing about this technology, I think, is that it’s the first hard science advance we’ve seen that’s definitively futuristic from the perspective of the late ’90s. Industrial-strength laser guns were technically possible even in the ’90s, but optical computers (as described by Zakharov as the limit of classical physical computation) aren’t anywhere on the horizon even now.
It’s unclear if this was a new development on Planet or one that built upon work that took place on Earth between the ’90s and the launch of the Unity sometime in the next century, but it’s got a plausible case to be the first real net-new engineering breakthrough on Planet. Which, I think, gives some sense of the distinction between second-tier and third-tier technologies. By the time the player’s faction starts discovering third-tier techs, we’re pretty definitively moving from the sense of the early colonists reestablishing the present on an alien world and into the future.
Now, of course, the tech tree does not force a faction to polish off all the lower technologies in order to ascend to third-tier, so it’s completely plausible that a faction could end up with some technologies from the third or fourth tier while lacking even some first tier techs. It’s as true on Planet as it is on Earth that the when the future arrives, it isn’t evenly distributed.
Finally, in my more fanciful moments, I think that the lack of any practical application to the fastest possible computers is best read as somewhat snide commentary. In this view, Reynolds is riffing on gamers’ fascination with more processing power and RAM as the foundation for techno-optimism. It is as if to say: “Look – even if you had the fastest possible computer – it wouldn’t actually change your life.”
The real answer, though, is probably some reason to do with game balance. Like the Virtual World used to require this tech, but doing that meant that the University almost always got it first with their heavy pure science flavor. So it was moved down to leave Optical Computers with no effect. Either way, it’s a good sign for any work when simple coincidences seem to have thematic import.