Moore’s Law at Age 50

Microchip

April 19th will be a landmark day in the semiconductor industry. Fifty years ago, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore shared a stunning prediction in Electronics magazine: Silicon chips should double in complexity (i.e., in terms of the number of components on them) every year for the next 10 years. In 1975, based on industry developments, he updated the prediction to doubling every two years and eventually every 18 months. This prediction became known as Moore’s Law. According to the San Jose Mercury News, chipmakers have proved Moore’s forecast to be accurate over the last five decades as new companies were launched that shaped Silicon Valley up to the present day.

Semiconductor analyst Robert Maire pointed out in an EE Times article that Moore’s Law was not just the basis for “ever faster and cheaper computers but an infinite number of new applications from communications and the Internet to smart phones and tablets.” He clarified that “no other industry can claim similar far reaching impact on the lives of so many people…[in] less than a lifespan, more changes in the world can be traced back to the enabling power of the semiconductor industry than any other industry.”

In a Forbes interview, two semiconductor luminaries, Carver Mead and Bill Davidow, talked about the impact of Moore’s Law while attending an event commemorating the 50-year anniversary at the Computer History Museum.
They explained that Moore’s Law applies to other areas beyond silicon electronics. Mead is a semiconductor pioneer and emeritus professor of engineering and applied science at Caltech. He pointed out that the law applies to magnetic recording, optical communications and old-school radio technology. Davidow is a former Intel senior executive and current adviser to his venture capital firm Mohr Davidow. He shared that Moore’s Law even helped to enable the exponential growth in knowledge.

In addition to the positive impact of Moore’s Law that these experts highlight,
IEEE Spectrum reported that the law has had the unintended consequence of raising the expectations for broader technical progress. While silicon chip complexity has increased at a rapid rate, modern life depends on many processes that improve rather slowly such as the production of food and energy as well as the transportation of people and goods. Growth rates in these areas generally range from 1.5 to 3 percent per year which is minimal compared to 46 percent per year that Moore’s Law predicted for microchips.

Some people are critical of the law for raising these expectations which is not really fair. Although Moore’s Law has raised expectations for other areas, logic should help keep things in perspective. There are bound to be differences when comparisons are made across assorted forms of progress. Variability in growth rates is just one of them.

Even if you struggle to make your peace with this variability, it is tough to argue against the benefits of Moore’s Law, especially for business and industry. According to VLSI Research, the market value of companies across the range of technology driven by Moore’s Law amounted to $13 trillion in 2014.

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Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Dollar Photo Club)

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