The transistor count is still doubling at Moore’s rate, but individual chips have stopped becoming faster because of the heat they generate. And engineers worry that eventually doubling the number of transistors will add more fabrication steps, increasing costs.

Share story

It’s Gordon Moore’s world. We just live in it.

Moore, born in 1929, was one of the “Traitorous Eight” who left Shockley Semiconductor to start Fairchild Semiconductor. In 1968, he co-founded Intel. And the rest is Silicon Valley history.

He is also the originator of “Moore’s Law,” which turned 50 this month.

It was not a law like gravity or even the Law of Holes (when in a hole, stop digging), but a prediction, an audacious objective and road map. Whether Moore’s insight can be sustained is one of the biggest challenges facing technology.

Moore noted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had been doubling every year and predicted this would continue.

In other words, computer chips would double in power every year.

Later he revised the “law” to every two years. Intel executive David House went on to say the performance of chips would double every 18 months.

“Think of an integrated circuit as being a fixed size (say, 1 centimeter on a side), and think of it as costing a fixed amount to produce,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Photos: History of “Moore’s Law”

“What Moore’s law means, then, is that every 18 months you can buy twice the number of transistors for the same price, or the same number of transistors for half the price. Almost nothing in our natural world has this characteristic.”

As the semiconductor industry made its chips more capable and less expensive, they provided a rich field for ever more software applications and gave birth to entire new industries in information technology (IT).

“What Gordon giveth, Bill taketh away,” an expression goes, as in Bill Gates. It refers to how every 18 months to two years, Microsoft and its competitors have added ever more features to such programs as Word and Excel, keeping the chip-makers continually innovating.

The result has been revolutionary.

One example: Today’s average smartphone has more computing power than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that took men to the moon and back in 1969.

Moore has been quoted as saying, “If the automobile industry had set a pace similar to that of the semiconductor industry, a Rolls-Royce would get half a million miles per gallon and it would be cheaper to throw it away than to park it.”

The consequences of Moore’s law transformed the economy and remade the San Jose area from “the Valley of Heart’s Delight” into Silicon Valley. Intel seeded Portland’s “Silicon Forest.” The dynamics turned metropolitan Seattle into a technopolis, beginning with Gates and Paul Allen and PC software.

Aldus developed desktop publishing. RealNetworks created streaming media. Modern cellular service came with McCaw. E-tailing and commercial cloud computing lifted Amazon.com.

With more software developers than any other metro, “Seattle is the software capital of the nation and the world,” Lazowska said. “All this is due to the progress driven by Moore’s law.”

The bad news is that “around 2004 the good times ended,” he said.

The transistor count is still doubling at Moore’s rate, but individual chips have stopped becoming faster because of the heat they generate. They risk melting.

“You hear about multicore today,” Lazowska said. “What’s happening is that, instead of getting a single processor whose performance doubles every 18 months, you’re getting processors of the same performance, but the number of processors doubles every 18 months.”

Engineers worry that eventually doubling the number of transistors will add to the fabrication steps, increasing costs.

“Should that turn out to be the case, the wheels will come off the cart,” Lazowska said.

A broader question is how much the concept of exponential growth, thanks to technology, has influenced American thinking.

 

Andrew “Andy” Grove, Intel’s first hire, went on to become its legendary CEO.  (Tony Avelar / Bloomberg)
Andrew “Andy” Grove, Intel’s first hire, went on to become its legendary CEO. (Tony Avelar / Bloomberg)

For example, Wall Street expects doubling of stock prices within short periods. Microsoft pulled this off in the 1990s, and rapid-growth tech outfits still do. Until they don’t.

Eventually everything runs up against another law, “Stein’s law,” named after economist Herb Stein:

“If something will not go on forever, it will stop.”

The revolution stoked by Moore also faces the roadblocks laid out by Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon. In 2012, he published a controversial paper that laid out reasons why rapid American growth was over.

Among the causes: falling education, changing demographics, inequality and lack of new transformative innovations.

Agree or not, Gordon’s arguments must be pondered and wrestled with.

Also, Americans have perhaps an unrealistic optimism that technology can fix everything. Climate change? Ocean acidification? Drought? We’ll adjust, thanks to our superior ingenuity.

Social critic and urbanist James Howard Kunstler calls this “a childish fantasy” and wrote a trenchant book called “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation.”

I’ll leave the last word to Bill Gates, from a talk he gave at the 2010 Techonomy conference.

“We’ve all been spoiled and deeply confused by the IT model. Exponential improvement — that is rare.”

Correction: Information in this article, originally published April 25, 2015, was corrected April 27 and 28, 2015. A photo caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Core 2 Duo processor with 410  transistors made its debut in 2002; it actually made its debut in 2008, and it had 410 million transistors.