The End of Moore’s Law

ibm_chip1I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a while. It is now commonly being acknowledged that we are nearing the end of Moore’s law. Moore’s law is named after Gordon Moore, an engineer who later was one of the founders of Intel. In 1965, Moore made the observation that the number of transistors that could be etched onto a circuit board would double every two years. He originally thought this would last for a decade or so, but the microchip industry has fulfilled his prediction for over 50 years now.

In 1965 a single transistor cost about $8 in today’s dollars and now, after so many years of doubling, we can put billions of transistors onto a chip, at a tiny fraction of a cent each. It was the belief that chips could continue to improve that helped to launch Silicon Valley, and that enabled the huge array of technological changes that have been brought about by cheap computer chips.

The companies that make chips have thrived by creating a new generation of chips every few years that represented a significant leap forward in computing power. I think every adult understands the real life consequences of these changes – we’ve all been through the cycle of having to upgrade computers every few years, and more recently of having to upgrade cellphones. Each subsequent generation of PC or smartphone was expected to be considerably faster and more powerful.

But we are starting to reach the end of Moore’s law, mostly driven by limits of physics and the size of atoms. It now looks like there will be better chips perhaps every three years. And within a decade or so Moore’s law will probably come to an end. There may be faster and better computers developed after that point – but improvements will have to come from somewhere other than cramming more transistors into a smaller space.

There are researchers looking to improve computers in other ways – through better software or through chip designs that can be more efficient with the same number of transistors. For instance, IBM and others have been working on chips that use layers of single chips built into a matrix – essentially a 3D chip. And there has been a lot of research into using light instead of electricity to speed up the computing process.

We are already starting to see the result of the slowdown of Moore’s law. The PC and tablet industries are suffering because people are hanging onto those devices a lot longer than they used to. Apple and Samsung are both struggling due to a drastic reduction in the sale of premium smartphones – because new phones are no longer noticeably better than the old ones.

Faster chips also fueled a lot of other technologies, including many in the telecom world. Faster chips have brought us better and faster servers, routers, and switches. Better chips have led to improved generations of fiber optic gear, voice switches, cable TV headends, settop boxes – basically every kind of telecom electronics. No doubt these technologies will keep improving, but soon the improvements won’t be from faster and more powerful processors. The improvements will have to come from elsewhere.

Faster and more powerful chips have enabled the start of whole new industries – smart cars, drones, robots, and virtual reality. But those new industries will not get the same boost during their fledgling years like what happened in the past to other electronics-based industries. And that has a lot of technology futurists concerned. Nobody is predicting the end to innovation and new industries. But anything new that comes along will not get the boost that we’ve enjoyed these many decades through the knowledge that a new technology would improve almost automatically with more powerful processors.





2 thoughts on “The End of Moore’s Law

  1. One could argue that the end of Moore’s law won’t matter all that much because, as noted here, greater processor speed is no longer important in mass market devices like phones, tablets, and laptops. That could change if portable VR apps become common, but devices used for this purpose will likely have room for multiple CPUs. Still, we’ll definitely see a lot more effective speed in everyday devices. Some of that will come from much faster memory and storage, some from better software (though that resource is also becoming less productive), and some from enhanced cloud services using improved networks. With respect to the latter, it’s now routine for users of Adobe’s photo software to send photos to the cloud to have the sharpness of key objects improved (shake reduction); the entire process takes just a few seconds. The people likely to suffer the most from the end of Moore’s law will likely be those who operate massive servers, which will have to get physically larger and as a result consume more electricity.

    • I agree it won’t be that big of a difference for us users. The chips we already have are amazingly fast and we still have a few more turns of Moore’s law before it dies. But it sure is going to be a big deal for the companies that have grown to expect everybody to buy new PCs, tablets and smartphones ever two years. Wall Street is going to be unforgiving to those firms.

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