SAN FRANCISCO – On April 19, 1965, just over 50 years ago, Gordon Moore, then the head of research for Fairchild Semiconductor and later one of the co-founders of Intel, was asked by Electronics Magazine to submit an article predicting what was going to happen to integrated circuits, the heart of computing, in the next 10 years. Studying the trend he’d seen in the previous few years, Moore predicted that every year we’d double the number of transistors that could be fit on a single chip of silicon so you’d get twice as much computing power for only slightly more money. When that came true, in 1975, he modified his prediction to a doubling roughly every two years. “Moore’s Law” has essentially held up ever since – and, despite the skeptics, keeps chugging along, making it probably the most remarkable example ever of sustained exponential growth of a technology.
For the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, I interviewed Moore, now 86, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, at a celebration in his honor co-hosted by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Intel. I asked him what he’d learned most from Moore’s Law having lasted this long.
“I guess one thing I’ve learned is once you’ve made a successful prediction, avoid making another one,” Moore said. “I’ve avoided opportunities to predict the next 10 or 50 years.”
But was he surprised by how long it has been proved basically correct?
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“Oh, I’m amazed,” he said. “The original prediction was to look at 10 years, which I thought was a stretch. This was going from about 60 elements on an integrated circuit to 60,000 – a thousandfold extrapolation over 10 years. I thought that was pretty wild. The fact that something similar is going on for 50 years is truly amazing. You know, there were all kinds of barriers we could always see that (were) going to prevent taking the next step, and somehow or other, as we got closer, the engineers had figured out ways around these. But someday it has to stop. No exponential like this goes on forever.”
But what an exponential it’s been. In introducing the evening, Intel’s CEO, Brian Krzanich summarized where Moore’s Law has taken us. If you took Intel’s first-generation microchip from 1971, the 4004, and the latest chip Intel has on the market today, the fifth-generation Core i5 processor, he said, you can see the power of Moore’s Law at work: Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient and about 60,000 times lower cost.
To put that another way, Krzanich said Intel engineers did a rough calculation of what would happen had a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle improved at the same rate as microchips did under Moore’s Law: “Here are the numbers: (Today) you would be able to go with that car 300,000 miles per hour. You would get 2 million miles per gallon of gas, and all that for the mere cost of 4 cents! Now, you’d still be stuck on the (Highway) 101 getting here tonight, but, boy, in every opening you’d be going 300,000 miles an hour!”
What is most striking in Moore’s 1965 article is how many predictions he got right about what these steadily improving microchips would enable. The article, entitled “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” argued that: “Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today. … In telephone communications, integrated circuits in digital filters will separate channels on multiplex equipment. (They) will also switch telephone circuits and perform data processing.”
Moore pretty much anticipated the personal computer, the cellphone, self-driving cars, the iPad, Big Data and the Apple Watch. How did he do that? (The only thing he missed, I jokingly told him, was “microwave popcorn.”)
“Well,” said Moore, “I had been looking at integrated circuits – (they) were really new at that time, only a few years old – and they were very expensive. There was a lot of argument as to why they would never be cheap, and I was beginning to see, from my position as head of a laboratory, that the technology was going to go in the direction where we would get more and more stuff on a chip and it would make electronics less expensive. … I had no idea it was going to turn out to be a relatively precise prediction, but I knew the general trend was in that direction and had to give some kind of a reason why it was important to lower the cost of electronics.”
Can it continue? Every year someone predicts the demise of Moore’s Law, and they’re wrong. With enough good engineers working on it, he hoped, “we won’t hit a dead end. … It’s (a) unique technology. I can’t see anything really comparable that has gone on for this long a period of time with exponential growth.”
But let’s remember that it was enabled by a group of remarkable scientists and engineers, in an America that did not just brag about being exceptional, but invested in the infrastructure and basic scientific research, and set the audacious goals, to make it so. If we want to create more Moore’s Law-like technologies, we need to invest in the building blocks that produced that America.