On the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, examining the phenomenon of ‘smaller, better, cheaper, faster’

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    Jan Van der Spiegel holds a microprocessor (the black dot at the lower right corner of the square pad in his hand) in front of about one-tenth of the 50-ton original Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)

    Jan Van der Spiegel holds a microprocessor (the black dot at the lower right corner of the square pad in his hand) in front of about one-tenth of the 50-ton original Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)

    Moore’s Law has accurately predicted the trajectory of Silicon Valley’s exponential influence in the world, but the law might just have an expiration date.

    On April 19, 1965, in an article in Electronics magazine, Gordon Moore noted that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year, and he predicted that this would continue for the foreseeable future. Moore’s prediction turned into the mantra of the companies driving the computing revolution.

    Arnold Thackray, founder and chancellor of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and author of the soon-to-be-released book “Moore’s Law: The life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s quiet visionary,” says transistors are now omnipresent.

    What are transistors? Tiny circuits that regulate electric current by using “0”s and “1”s to indicate “off” or “on” and directing electricity to make devices work.

    “They have totally invaded every aspect of your life,” says Thackray. “The best example I can give you is every person in the world—if we assume they’re all equal—last year bought 8 billion transistors.”

    Think of your cell phone, your television, medical devices, your car, the airplane…these are filled with transistors, says Thackray.

    Moore worked on the first transistors, and he realized how useful and important their switches were. This led to his co-founding of Intel, making him the richest man in California at one point.

    But despite being a reliable maxim for half a century now, Thackray says Moore’s Law could be a concept with an expiration date.

    “It is going to hit a limit,” says Thackray. “We have lived for 50 years with this comfortable background phenomenon that smaller, better, cheaper, faster just happens. But if you keep shrinking size, you eventually get down toward the size of a silicon atom. And when you get down towards close the size of a silicon atom, that’s it, folks. Moore’s law is over.”

    He thinks that we could see this moment sometime in the next decade. What’s next? There’s could be a trillion bucks in that answer.

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