At the inaugural International Solid-State Circuits Conference held on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1960, a young computer engineer named Douglas Engelbart introduced the electronics industry to the remarkably simple but groundbreaking concept of “scaling.”
Dr. Engelbart, who would later help develop the computer mouse and other personal computing technologies, theorized that as electronic circuits were made smaller, their components would get faster, require less power and become cheaper to produce — all at an accelerating pace.
Sitting in the audience that day was Gordon Moore, who went on to help found the Intel Corporation, the world’s largest chip maker. In 1965, Dr. Moore quantified the scaling principle and laid out what would have the impact of a computer-age Magna Carta. He predicted that the number of transistors that could be etched on a chip would double annually for at least a decade, leading to astronomical increases in computer power.
His prediction appeared in Electronics magazine in April 1965 and was later called Moore’s Law. It was never a law of physics, but rather an observation about the economics of a young industry that ended up holding true for a half-century.
One transistor, about as wide as a cotton fiber, cost roughly $8 in today’s dollars in the early 1960s; Intel was founded in 1968. Today, billions of transistors can be squeezed onto a chip the size of a fingernail, and transistor costs have fallen to a tiny fraction of a cent.
That improvement — the simple premise that computer chips would do more and more and cost less and less — helped Silicon Valley bring startling advances to the world, from the personal computer to the smartphone to the vast network of interconnected computers that power the Internet.
In recent years, however, the acceleration predicted by Moore’s Law has slipped. Chip speeds stopped increasing almost a decade ago, the time between new generations is stretching out, and the cost of individual transistors has plateaued.
Technologists now believe that new generations of chips will come more slowly, perhaps every two and a half to three years. And by the middle of the next decade, they fear, there could be a reckoning, when the laws of physics dictate that transistors, by then composed of just a handful of molecules, will not function reliably. Then Moore’s Law will come to an end, unless a new technological breakthrough occurs.
To put the condition of Moore’s Law in anthropomorphic terms, “It’s graying, it’s aging,” said Henry Samueli, chief technology officer for Broadcom, a maker of communications chips. “It’s not dead, but you’re going to have to sign Moore’s Law up for AARP.”
In 1995, Dr. Moore revised the doubling rate to two-year intervals. Still, he remains impressed by the longevity of his forecast: “The original prediction was to look at 10 years, which I thought was a stretch,” he said recently at a San Francisco event held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law.
But the ominous question is what will happen if that magic combination of improving speeds, collapsing electricity demand and lower prices cannot be sustained.
The impact will be felt far beyond the computer industry, said Robert P. Colwell, a former Intel electrical engineer who helped lead the design of the Pentium microprocessor when he worked as a computer architect at the chip maker from 1990 to 2000.
“Look at automobiles, for example,” Dr. Colwell said. “What has driven their innovations over the past 30 years? Moore’s Law.” Most automotive industry innovations in engine controllers, antilock brakes, navigation, entertainment and security systems have come from increasingly low-cost semiconductors, he said.
These fears run contrary to the central narrative of an eternally youthful Silicon Valley. For more than three decades the industry has argued that computing will get faster, achieve higher capacity and become cheaper at an accelerating rate. It has been described both as “Internet time” and even as the Singularity, a point at which computing power surpasses human intelligence, an assertion that is held with near religious conviction among many in Silicon Valley.
“Intel doesn’t know what to do about the impending end of Moore’s Law,” said Dr. Colwell.
In July, Intel said it would push back the introduction of 10-nanometer technology (a human hair, by comparison, is about 75,000 nanometers wide) to 2017. The delay is a break with the company’s tradition of introducing a generation of chips with smaller wires and transistors one year, followed by adding new design features the next.
“The last two technology transitions have signaled that our cadence is closer to two and a half years than two years,” Brian Krzanich, Intel’s chief executive, said in a conference call with analysts.
No More ‘Free Ride’
The glass-is-half-full view of these problems is that the slowdown in chip development will lead to more competition and creativity. Many semiconductor makers do not have the state-of-the-art factories now being designed by four chip manufacturers, GlobalFoundries, Intel, Samsung and TSMC.
The delays might allow the trailing chip makers to compete in markets that don’t require the most bleeding-edge performance, said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School.
And even if shrinking transistor size doesn’t make chips faster and cheaper, it will lower the power they require.
Ultra-low-power computer chips that will begin to appear at the end of this decade will in some cases not even require batteries — they will be powered by solar energy, vibration, radio waves or even sweat. Many of them will be sophisticated new kinds of sensors, wirelessly woven into centralized computing systems in the computing cloud.
What products might those chips lead to? No one knows yet, but product designers will be forced to think differently about what they’re building, rather than play a waiting game for chips to get more powerful. Thanks to Moore’s Law, computers have gotten smaller and smaller but have essentially followed the same concept of chips, hardware and software in a closed box.
“In the past, designers were lazy,” said Tony Fadell, an electrical engineer who headed the team that designed the original iPod, and led the hardware design of the iPhone before founding Nest Labs, a maker of smart home devices like thermostats and smoke alarms.
Carver Mead, the physicist who actually coined the term Moore’s Law, agrees. “We’ve basically had a free ride,” he said. “It’s really nuts, but that’s what paid off.”
Indeed, a graying Moore’s Law could be alive and well for at least another decade. And if it is not, humans will just have to get more creative.