Why The Most Important Rule In Tech May Have Already Kicked The Bucket

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore noticed that the number of components in computer circuits was doubling at a pretty regular rate. Eventually, this was codified into the modern version of what is now Moore's Law. In essence, it states that computer performance will double about every two years. But that was then. We live in a different world now.

The Law That Became A Guideline

More specifically, Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on a microprocessor chip will double every 24 months or so. Moore ended up being right: computers the size of a bedroom evolved into bulky but manageable desktop machines, which became laptops, smartphones, and even smart thermostats. But as M. Mitchell Waldrop notes in Nature, that wasn't fate; it was a deliberate move by chip manufacturers. "Since the 1990s, in fact, the semiconductor industry has released a research road map every two years to coordinate what its hundreds of manufacturers and suppliers are doing to stay in step with the law — a strategy sometimes called More Moore. It has been largely thanks to this road map that computers have followed the law's exponential demands."

But chipmakers may not be able to make things much smaller, and it's not for lack of trying. In the 2000s, manufacturers swapped out the classic silicon transistor for strained silicon; once those got even smaller, they overlaid new materials on each transistor to increase their performance. Once transistors got down to 22 nanometers, they started using a new tri-gate transistor to keep up with scaling demands. But once things got that small, production ran into snags: chipmakers use light to transfer patterns onto each silicon wafer, and the patterns are getting smaller than the wavelengths of light they're using. That's right: light is now too big for our silicon chips. We're now dealing in numbers of atoms, and at that scale, other issues crop up. According to Arstechnica, "[...] the specter of power usage and dissipation looms large: as the transistors are packed ever tighter, dissipating the energy that they use becomes ever harder."

120 Years of Moore's Law

An updated version of Moore's Law over 120 Years. The 7 most recent data points are all NVIDIA GPUs.

What's Next?

Manufacturers have already admitted they can't keep up with Moore's law anymore. In 2016, chip maker Intel scrapped its Moore-based roadmap, announcing that it's going to slow its chip-making advances. One reason is that with the advent of smart devices, raw power is taking a backseat to energy conservation and connectivity and clusters of sensors. Processors now need to integrate many different components, from RAM to accelerometers, and that requires different manufacturing processes than in the past.

Of course, that doesn't mean the industry isn't trying to make things smaller. They're just using different technology to do it. Quantum technology and optical computing can help. Shekhar Borkar, head of Intel's advanced microprocessor research, is still optimistic. As he told Nature, "Moore's law simply states that user value doubles every two years." If you think about it that way, Moore's law will live as long as our gadgets keep improving.

What Is Moore's Law?

Written by Ashley Hamer March 9, 2017

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