Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Promise at Technology’s Powerful Heart

As Moore’s Law turns 50, the revolution in computing it foretold is on the cusp of even more-radical progress.

Gordon E. Moore,Electronics magazine in 1965. PHOTO: INTEL
Fifty years ago, on April 19, 1965, chemist and reluctant entrepreneur Gordon E. Moore set out to graph the rapid rate of improvement in semiconductor-chip performance—and ended up discovering the heartbeat of the modern world.

That discovery is what became known as “Moore’s Law,” which is the observation that performance (speed, price, size) of integrated circuits, aka microchips, regularly doubled every 18 months. The graph began as an illustration to an article in Electronics magazine, and it didn’t acquire the name Moore’s Law” for another decade. And for a decade after that it remained a topic of interest mostly inside the semiconductor industry.

When he plotted the graph Mr. Moore was director of research at Fairchild Semiconductor, and others such as Doug Engelbart of SRI International and Moore’s own partner, Robert Noyce, had already spotted the same dynamic. But Mr. Moore would go on to co-found Intel, permanently imposing the law’s competitive pace onto the entire semiconductor industry—and from there onto the world.

Moore’s Law became iconic not because of its novelty or through media promotion, but because it has proved to be the most effective predictive tool of new chip generations, technology innovation and even social and cultural changes of the last half-century. It achieved all this despite doubts about its durability even by Mr. Moore and the fact that it isn’t really a scientific law.

Yet against all odds and regular predictions of its imminent demise, Moore’s Law endures. The historic doubling of chip performance every 18 months may have slowed to half that pace today, but even pessimists now accept that we likely will live under its regime well into the next decade and beyond.

If some of the recent breakthroughs in atomic-level transistors, nanotechnology and biological computers prove fruitful, Moore’s Law could again accelerate, or at least continue to rule, for decades to come. It now seems more likely than ever that a thousand years from now, what will be remembered most about our time will be its stunning efflorescence of innovation and entrepreneurship. By then Moore’s Law will have become Moore’s Era.

These predictions have enormous implications for the millennial generation now entering the workforce. They have never known a world not defined by Moore’s Law. But unlike their generational predecessors, to this new cohort social networks and iPhone apps are old hat.

What obsesses them is hardware—drones, robots, 3-D printing—that is even more closely connected to the fortunes of Moore’s Law. Their careers will rise and fall on how well they ride the curve of an equation devised during the Johnson administration by a now-octogenarian settled into a comfortable retirement in Hawaii.

And what a curve it will be. Moore’s Law is creative destruction on steroids. It regularly fosters the next wave of entrepreneurial opportunities made possible by the latest jump in chip performance. It can be blamed for much of the 90% mortality rate of electronics startups.

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