I first heard about Moore’s Law during my first visit to Intel in the early 1980s. It was the first time I got to meet then-CEO Gordon Moore, who was already a legend in Silicon Valley even though it was the early days of the personal computing revolution. As a new industry analyst assigned to cover PCs for Creative Strategies, Intel invited myself and a few journalists to learn about its newest chip, the Intel 80286, designed for use in next-generation IBM PCs and eventually used in PC clones.
Moore first made his now-famous computing observation in an article for Electronics Magazine published April 19, 1965. At its heart, Moore’s Law (so dubbed by Caltech professor Carver Mead) is the idea that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit would double approximately every two years. Translated from tech-speak, that means every generation of computer processor would tend to get smaller and faster, and in some cases draw less power. Moore’s Law has been the heartbeat of the tech world ever since, with almost every tech product from laptops to smartphones to smartwatches following the rule.
Moore’s Law has proven to be an important guiding light for the tech industry. It sits at the center of innovative design, as companies that create a product tend to use Moore’s Law to guide their vision of the future. I have often heard companies in the design stage of their next version of a product quote Moore’s Law in their efforts to double the performance or add new features in the next iteration of their product.
This is the goal of all semiconductor engineers as they strive, at the very least, to double the performance of every next-generation processor they work on. Accordingly, the folks at Intel came up with some fun facts as comparisons to Moore’s Law:
- If fuel efficiency improved at the same rate as Moore’s Law, you could drive a car for your entire life on a single tank of gas.
- The space program to land on the moon cost $25 billion. If prices fell at the rate of Moore’s Law today, that program would cost as much as a small private plane.
- Compared to Intel’s first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, today’s 14nm process delivers 3,500 times the performance at 90,000 times the efficiency and at 1/60,000th the cost.
But the rules of physics suggest Moore’s Law must have a stop. At an event at Intel’s Oregon office last summer, I asked Intel Senior Fellow and Director of Process Architecture and Integration Mark Bohr — one of the smartest semiconductor engineers I’ve ever met — if he thought Moore’s Law would continue well into the future.
“Through the decades, many experts have predicted the end of Moore’s Law,” Bohr said. “So far, all have been proven wrong. I am confident we can continue Moore’s Law for another decade. That’s been true for many years – we generally have pretty clear visibility about 10 years into the future. There are certainly physical limitations and it’s true that no exponential continues forever. But instead of hitting a wall, I believe Moore’s Law will evolve and adjust. Engineers at Intel and in our industry have been remarkably inventive over the years in finding ways around scaling ‘limits.'”
I asked the same question of Intel Chairman Andy Bryant. He said he could easily see the doubling continue with Intel’s 10nm process, which will be their next move forward (Intel’s current chips use a 14nm process; this number gets smaller with every new generation of processors). He also argued the doubling will apply to Intel’s next 7nm and 4nm chips over the next 10-12 year period. Bryant pointed out that Intel’s engineers keep pushing Moore’s Law, and each time it seems to be at its limit, his company’s brightest engineers find ways to extend it. Semiconductor engineers are also experimenting with new materials such as gallium arsenide, silicon carbon and graphene, among other materials, that have conductive properties which could eventually supplant silicon and could be used to expand Moore’s Law as well.
Today, Gordon Moore is 86, retired and lives in Hawaii. It’s really great to have one of the real pioneers of the digital age still with us and to be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a rule that has served our tech world faithfully for half a decade.
Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.