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.