For a Cursor Special about the explorer, Monique van de Ven and Tom Jeltes interviewed eight pioneers of the Eindhoven University of Technology. Today: professor Ton Backx is utterly convinced of the power of light as an information processor. Pictures by Bart van Overbeeke.
From rapid internet and a sustainable economy to applications in security and healthcare – the promises of integrated photonics are substantial and numerous. Professor Ton Backx is the director of the Institute for Photonic Integration and CEO of the international public-private cooperative alliance Photon Delta – and is utterly convinced of the power of light as an information processor, the key to photonics.
What question would you like to be asked?
“How can we, in our rapidly changing society, offer everyone the chance of a high level of prosperity and well-being? We are poised at a tipping point in history; ever more people worldwide are able to have a certain standard of living, and national borders no longer play a role. This puts society under enormous pressure – on work, on our data traffic, on the environment. How can we ensure that we won’t need to level things down, that no one will need to do with less, but that instead, we all move forward together, in a healthy environment that we use as sparingly as possible? This requires first and foremost that we invest in technological development.
Photonics is still in its infancy, but it will be a real help. This is being recognized worldwide, with considerable investment in research programs, for example, in the US and Asia. Photons make much more effective information carriers than electrons, mainly because they have no charge and in communication applications enable a much broader bandwidth. This is important to our exponentially growing data traffic, for instance, but also in healthcare and in bringing about a sustainable economy. I try to ensure that parties worldwide who are working on this, work on it together. That they work together on making this technology available for broad application in society.”
What led you to become a pioneer?
With emotion: “No doubt about that: it was my father. My father had a very difficult childhood, was drafted and sent to Indonesia, and learned at a young age how things should not be done. At an early age, he was deprived of important opportunities to develop his own potential. But my sisters and I did have those opportunities. From a young age, I was intrigued by engineering. Together with my father, I was always opening things up; I’d get a toy car for Sinterklaas, and right away I’d be opening it up with my father so I could put lights in it. And we built our own model railway, right down to the electric switches and signal boxes. I knew from a young age that I wanted to study engineering, but I also had an eye on the future beyond that. After graduating I went straight into industry, I wanted to be involved in developments there and see their application. I’m still like that.”
What is it about your personality that makes you a pioneer?
“I am very curious, I want to know how things work and how they are put together – whether it’s a technical or, say, social issue. I am continuously receptive, always seeing new challenges and I always have questions.”
How do you relax?
“I relax by thinking things over and getting things straight in my mind – like now, in this interview. That also gives me energy. And doing this with the young people here at the university is also something I enjoy, they are a source of stimulation. For every stimulus that you give, you get ten back. What my father did for me from a young age – that’s what I’m now doing here, the whole time.”
What will it take for you to say that your life has been a success?
“If I have been able to help build a society in which everyone – including our children and grandchildren – can enjoy a high quality of life and can grow old with pleasure. But that is never something you do alone; you are just a cog in a big, complex machine.”
This interview was first published in a special on ‘The Explorer’.