50th Anniversary of Moore’s Law: What If He Got it Wrong?

Electronics  April 16, 1965

Electronics April 16, 1965

On April 19, 1965, Electronics magazine published an article that would change the world. It was authored by a Fairchild Semiconductor’s R&D director, who made the observation that transistors would decrease in cost and increase in performance at an exponential rate. The article predicted the personal computer and mobile communications. The author’s name was Gordon Moore and the seminal observation was later dubbed “Moore’s Law.” Three years later he would co-found Intel. The law defines the trajectory of the semiconductor industry, with profound consequences that have touched every aspect of our lives.

The period is sometimes quoted as 18 months because of Intel executive David House, who in 1975 predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months; being a combination of the effect of more transistors and their faster switching time.

What if Gordon Moore got his math wrong and that instead of the number of components on an integrated circuit doubling every couple of years, he said every three years?

If we play out that scenario, we’d be back in 1998. The year Google was founded and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was 14 years old. Apple discontinued development of the Newton computer, and Synopsys had just acquired EPIC and Viewlogic, and Cadence was buying Quickturn.  Intel had released the Pentium II microprocessor with around 8 million transistors in a 250nm process.  Here are some more consequences of a slower growth rate:

  • No modern smartphones (3.6 billion in use today)
  • No social media as we know it (Twitter started nine years ago when the New Horizons Pluto mission was launched)
  • Lower fuel efficiency and higher CO2 emissions
  • The World Wide Web was a youngster e.g. no YouTube
  • Lower agricultural output
  • Higher mortality rates
  • Renewable power would not be commercially viable e.g no solar panels on my house
  • China would not yet be the world’s manufacturing center

Fortunately(?), we live in 2015 and not 1998.  Moore’s law has continued to hold up after 50 years.  But like all exponential growth curves in the real world, they eventually saturate their eco-system and can grow no further.  Where are we with Moore’s law?

One positive sign is the announcement of 7nm test chips by IBM researchers.   The transistors were silicon-germanium channel types and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography was used to fabricate the chips.  Designs employing 20 billion transistors will be possible.  Commercial availability is at least two to three years away.

According to Wally Rhines of Mentor Graphics, Moore’s Law is a special case of the engineering learning curve.  He says that as long as we could shrink feature sizes and wafer diameters fast enough, then we could stay on the learning curve. Sooner or later, we will have to do other things, because shrinking feature sizes will become too expensive. We will need to use other methods in addition to shrinking feature sizes to keep ahead.

And what will those other methods be?   That is a topic for another article.

Happy 50th Birthday to Moore’s Law!

Gordon Moore

Gordon Moore