[Paleopsych] CNET: Forty years of Moore's Law
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Sun Apr 10 17:08:09 UTC 2005
Forty years of Moore's Law
By Michael Kanellos
Forty years ago, Electronics Magazine asked Intel co-founder Gordon
Moore to write an article summarizing the state of the electronics
The article outlined what became known as Moore's Law, the
observation that the number of transistors--tiny on/off switches that
churn out electrical signals that get represented as 1s and 0s--on a
chip can be doubled in a short period of time. Adopted as a yardstick
by the tech industry, the concept is one of the reasons the industry
evolved into a high-growth, but high-risk, affair.
This FAQ explains the impact and consequences of the principles set
down in the April 19, 1965, article.
What is Moore's Law?
When writing the article, Moore noted that the number of devices
(which then included transistors and resistors) inside chips was
doubling every year, largely because engineers could shrink the size
of transistors. That meant that the performance and capabilities of
semiconductors was growing exponentially and would continue to. In
1975, Moore amended the law to state that the number of transistors
doubled about every 24 months.
When the paper first came out, chips sported about 60 distinct
devices. By contrast, Intel's latest Itanium chip comes with 1.7
billion silicon transistors.
As monumental as the article has become, it wasn't a big deal then. It
started on page 114 of the magazine.
"It wasn't something you expected to join the archives," Moore said
in a recent gathering with reporters. "I didn't think it would be
Why is it possible?
It's the miracle of industrial chemistry. Silicon is a good
semiconductor (which means it can conduct electricity, but in a manner
that can be controlled), and the crystalline structure remains intact
Is the law now dead?
No, though various analysts and executives have incorrectly
predicted its demise. It will, however, likely begin to slow down to a
three-year cycle in the next decade and require companies to adopt
Some people, such as Stan Williams and Phil Kuekes of HP Labs, say
the ability to shrink transistors will start to become problematic by
around 2010. That should prompt manufacturers to adopt alternatives,
such as HP's crossbar switches, to control electrical signals.
It wasn't something you expected to join the archives.
--Gordon Moore, co-founder, Intel
Others, such as Intel's director of technology strategy, Paolo
Gargini, paint a more gradual picture. Around 2015, they say,
manufacturers will start to move toward hybrid chips, which combine
elements of traditional transistors with newfangled technology such as
nanowires. A full conversion to new types of chips may not occur until
From a theoretical point of view, silicon transistors could continue
to be shrunk until about the 4-nanometer manufacturing generation,
which could appear about 2023. At that point, the source and the
drain, which are separated by the transistor gate and gate oxide, will
be so close that electrons will drift over on their own. When that
happens, transistors will lose their reliability, because it will be
impossible to control the flow of electrons and hence the creation of
1s and 0s.
(The nanometer measurement refers to the average feature size on a
chip. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Current chips are made on
a 90-nanometer process, while experimental devices about 6 nanometers
long have been produced.)
What happens then?
Hard to say. If alternatives to silicon transistors never materialize,
Moore's Law stops. If alternatives emerge, progress could accelerate
under similar principles.
What's the best alternative?
Who knows? Carbon nanotube transistors, silicon nanowire
transistors, molecular crossbars, phase change materials and
spintronics are mostly now lab experiments.
Silicon, though, won't go easy. Manufacturers and designers love it.
Chances are, silicon will continue to be incorporated into these new
devices in some fashion.
"I view (silicon) technology as a fundamental way for bringing out
complex microstructures and materials," Moore said.
Who said what?
California Institute of Technology Professor Carver Mead was the one
who dubbed it Moore's Law, a lofty title Moore said he was too
embarrassed to utter himself for about 20 years. David House, a former
Intel executive, extrapolated that the doubling of transistors doubles
performance every 18 months. Actually, performance doubles more like
every 20 months. Moore emphatically says he never said 18 months for
The rule also doesn't apply to hard-drive densities or to the growth
of other devices. "Moore's Law has come to be applied to anything that
changes exponentially, and I am happy to take credit for it," Moore
What does doubling do?
The impact can be summed up as follows: faster, smaller, cheaper.
Under Moore's Law, chip designers essentially shrink the size of
transistors--which are now measured in nanometers--and then fill
up the resulting empty space on the chip with more transistors. More
transistors let designers add features, such as 3D graphics, that used
to exist on separate chips--thereby cutting costs.
The designers can also choose to dedicate more transistors to speeding
up how the chip performs its usual functions. Despite the extra
transistors, these enhanced chips cost about the same as the old ones,
because they take up the same surface area of silicon.
As an added bonus, smaller transistors mean electrons don't have to
travel as far, boosting performance. Though chip designs vary widely,
manufacturers try to get some or all of these advantages.
How does that affect products?
Put into practice, Moore's Law spells out a way for companies to
enhance their products at a rapid clip. Eighteen years ago, Michael
Douglas, in the movie "Wall Street," spoke on a cell phone that was
about the size and shape of a brick. Shrinkage and integration has
lead to phones with television tuners, 7-megapixel cameras and MP3
players. Declining costs have also put them in the hands of billions
More-powerful, cheaper chips have in turn allowed software makers to
develop applications such as instant messaging, 3D games and Web
browsers that would have been cumbersome only a few years before they
were invented. Consumers and analysts regularly complain that progress
outstrips their needs, but rarely does anyone revert.
What are the technical problems?
Getting electricity to transistors is difficult, and dissipating the
heat generated by these transistors is just as challenging. Some
transistor structures, such as the gate oxide, are only a few
atoms thick, so they leak electricity.
Where does it go next?
The trend now is to put silicon where it isn't. In the coming years,
various start-ups hope to embed sensors in walls, household
appliances and even wild animals. Microfluidics chips will let
doctors quickly harvest large amounts of patient data with less lab
What's the economic impact?
Very few industries are this lucky. Car manufacturers have to entice
customers with new cup holders or different body types, because engine
performance doesn't change that rapidly. Moore noted that if car
manufacturers had something like this, cars would get 100,000 miles to
the gallon and it would be cheaper to buy a Rolls Royce than park it.
(Cars would also be only a half an inch long.)
The fear now is that the treadmill will slow.
"Replacement has always been predicated on our industry's ability to
come up with neat new things to buy. That in turn has been predicated
on greater integration, allowing richer features due to the progress
of Moore's Law," wrote Dan Hutcheson of VLSI Research in his
newsletter "The Chip Insider." "Slow it down, and end users are likely
to slow their replacement rate. Slow this, and the market slows with
Are the economics healthy?
Yes and no. One of the unsavory consequences of tracking Moore's Law
is called Rock's Law, named after venture capitalist Arthur Rock.
It states that the cost of fabrication facilities doubles every four
years. Now fabs cost billions of dollars and the cafeterias in them
generally cost more than the old fabs, noted Craig Barrett, Intel's
CEO. Most chip companies now do not own their own factories because of
Wall Street analysts, conference futurists and even some chip
executives have regularly declared that the outrageous expenses will
lead to the end or a slowing of Moore's Law. Most companies,
though, never take the advice: Falling off the pace would just ensure
extermination by faster-moving competitors anyway. The chip industry
remains a multibillion-dollar industry.
What else did Moore predict?
Re-reading the paper after 40 years, Moore noticed that he also
predicted the home computer and electronic wristwatches.
In the early '70s, in another article for Electronics Magazine, Moore
also forecast the growth of Ovonics Unified Memory, a type of memory
made from a similar material as CD disks. In February, Intel said it
may come out with Ovonics memory in a few years.
Not everything he's said, however, has come true. He once predicted
that wafers, the round disks out of which chips are harvested, would
measure 56 inches in diameter about now. They measure 300
millimeters, or 12 inches.
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