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Moore's Law

Updated on September 8, 2012
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It has more of an effect than you think!

Some computer hardware specialists consider Moore's Law particularly applicable to the construction and use of electronics. The capabilities and thus the usefulness of most digital, electronic devices are tied to the law, which states the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years. Aspects such as processing speed, memory capacity and digital resolution improve at the exponential rate predicted by the law's namesake, Gordon E. Moore. This has held true for 40 years, having significantly driven technological and social change in that time, and that pace is expected to continue for at least another decade.

Caltech professor, physicist and Very-large-scale integration (VLSI) process leader Carver Mead coined the label "Moore's Law" after Moore made his prediction. Moore was a cofounder of Intel, the world's largest semiconductor company and creator of the x86 microprocessor series, which can be found in most PCs today; however, he worked for Fairchild semiconductor at the time. Moore publicized his observation in his 1965 paper "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits:" "The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year... Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years. That means by 1975, the number of components per integrated circuit for minimum cost will be 65,000. I believe that such a large circuit can be built on a single wafer."

While he originally calculated the rate as doubling every year, he later altered his projection to two years in 1975, saying, "So the original one was doubling every year in complexity now in 1975, I had to go back and revisit this... and I noticed we were losing one of the key factors that let us make this remarkable rate of progress... and it was one that was contributing about half of the advances were making." Moore is also often misquoted as having predicted a doubling every 18 months, though he strongly denied ever saying this. However, David House, a former Intel executive, found that every 18 months, the doubling of transistors actually doubles performance.

Moore was motivated to make his famous observation when Electronics magazine asked him to predict what would happen with silicon components in the next 10 years for the publication's 35th anniversary edition. After working with about 60 components, he found that, "from the days of the original planar transistor, which was 1959, we had about doubled every year the amount of components we could put on a chip." He used that information and extrapolated to predict the next 10 years, estimating that in 1975, 60 thousand components could be placed on a chip and that electronics would likely grow less expensive over time as yields increased and the costs of transistors decreased.

Since the 1950s, semiconductor industry revenue increased by 800 times. Chips of that time had 200 transistors while Intel produced chips with 1 billion in 2005. While Moore's Law was merely meant to be a prediction, it has also served as a "guiding light for venture capitalists, and eventually emerged as a staple of business journalists and popular culture." Computer component suppliers feel pressure; it usually takes two to five years to complete a major design project, but Moore's Law suggests the possibility of average performance improvement of 1 percent a week, which would mean any delays can mean immense losses.

Other aspects of digital technology are improving at rates similar to that observed in Moore's Law, as far as size, cost, density and speed (Moore only considered density in his prediction). Semiconductors increase in cost at the same rate Moore predicted; the doubling is known as "Rock's Law," named after venture capitalist Arthur Rock. The speed of the performance of a transistor doubles per unit cost every two years, despite the smaller size of the transistor - this rate is similar to that of Moore's Law. Hard disk storage cost per transistor increases at a similar rate as well, and hard drive capacity increases as the transistor count does. RAM storage capacity increases at the same rate as processing power. Even the value of a digital camera is related to Moore's Law, as Barry Hendy of Kodak Australia found through a "pixels per dollar" measure that camera price and resolution increase at a rate like that found by Moore.

Several sources, including computer industry technology "road maps" and Intel, predict that Moore's Law will continue for more chip generations, possibly 10 more years. This could mean hundreds of times more transistors per chip. Many futurists have expanded upon and extrapolated Moore's Law to make predictions of their own, including Ray Kurzweil with his Law of Accelerating Returns. Kurzweil, who is known mainly for the digital keyboards named after him, said in a 2001 essay that the rate of change in technology, including integrated circuits and transistors, vacuum tubes, relays and electromechanical computers, was exempt from any "specific implementation." He also projected a new technology will replace today's integrated-circuit technology, allowing Moore's Law to continue beyond 2020. He, like other futurists, related Moore's Law to technological singularity, "where societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we can't even imagine what will happen from our present perspective."

However, limitations to the law exist as well. The survival of Moore's Law depends on electronics firms to drive the capital required to continue the semiconductor development as predicted by the law. Laurence Krauss and Glenn Starkman predict the limit will be in 600 years, based on estimations information-processing capacities of any system. Even Moore said that the law cannot apply forever, as publicized in 2005 before Intel and other sources, including Michael Kanellos, refuted the idea: "In terms of size [of transistor] you can see that we're approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier, but it'll be two or three generations before we get that far-but that's as far out as we've ever been able to see. We have another 10 to 20 years before we reach a fundamental limit. By then they'll be able to make bigger chips and have transistor budgets in the billions."

It needs to be understood that improved hardware doesn't mean improved software, which is often more complicated and takes longer to make improvements. Wirth's Law says software execution slows at a greater pace than hardware is accelerating. Also, increases in power mean increases in complexity and size problems. Oftentimes, developers and manufacturers need to choose between performance, cost and space, and their decisions are greatly influenced by advances indicated by Moore's Law.

Controversy exists that Moore was actually not the first to recognize the "scaling effect" leading to the trends he predicted. Computer scientist Douglas C. Engelbart, who invented the computer mouse and other technologies vital to the Internet and the personal computer industry, made a similar observation and actually gave a 1960 lecture involving it - which Moore may have sat in on (Markoff). Engelbart said in a 2001 interview that it was indeed this observation that encouraged him to continue designing an interactive computing system.

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    • profile image

      Jennifer Robinson 7 years ago

      Very nice write up. I particularly was unaware of Rock's law and the other spin offs it has created.

    • profile image

      Angela Lethbridge 7 years ago

      While doing some research on the rate technology is changing I stumbled upon your hub and have to tell you that this is one of the most interesting reads I have had for a long time.

      I had never heard of Moore's law before and now I am absolutely fascinated by it.

      It sounds like Gordon Moore was an unrecognized genius in his time.

    • Dale G. Holmes profile image

      Dale G. Holmes 10 years ago from Brentwood, CA

      Nice Article !!

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