We want Moore —but the law is reaching its limits

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In 1965, Gordon Moore, who later founded Intel Corporation, wrote an essay for Electronics Magazine. In it, he made the observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year or so, and accordingly, computing power increases exponentially. In this way he did the impossible —predict the future, up to the smartwatch that came 50 years later:

"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."

For once, a prophecy came through. His theory, which he revised in 1975 to a doubling every two years, became known as Moore’s Law and has been the bedrock of modern computing and has powered the massive revolution in electronics that led us to the Internet, the smartphone and ever greater advances in space exploration. But, everything comes to an end.

The International Technology Roadmap, published in July by the Semiconductor Industry Association, predicts that transistors stop shrinking after 2021. The size of atoms themselves means we're pushing how far Moore's Law can go: beyond a certain point, physical constraints and economic costs means it will not be financially viable for companies to make conventional transistors any smaller. This means that in a few years technology companies may have to work harder to bring us advanced new use cases for computers.

There is some evidence to support the prediction. The number of companies that can afford to compete in chip manufacturing is getting very small. Intel, AMD, Samsung and Taiwan Semiconductor are the only big players left, and there's no guarantee that all of them will stick around. Intel's development pace has slowed down, largely as a reflection of how difficult it is to shrink transistors without introducing problems like excessive power leaks. The world’s top supercomputers appear to be already feeling the effects of Moore’s Law’s end times, and aren’t getting better at the rate they used to.

This doesn't mean that Moore's Law will be dead in 5 years. Chip builders searching for a speed boost will have to turn to alternatives like 3D chips and other technologies that make better use of available space. The coming plateau in transistor density will also stir more interest in redrawing the basic architecture of computers among supercomputer and data-center designers. Getting rid of certain design features dating from the 1940s could also unlock huge efficiency gains. These solutions, however, present their own challenges, like adequately dissipating the heat that builds up as the circuits function, and will require rethinking the design of many types of software.

The research and development plan layed out by the industry road map is no longer centred on Moore's law, the principle by which the technology industry has mapped out its progress over the last half-century. Instead, it will follow what might be called the More than Moore strategy: rather than making the chips better and letting the applications follow, it will start with applications —from smartphones and supercomputers to data centres in the cloud— and work downwards to see what chips are needed to support them. Among those will be new generations of sensors and other electronics required by a world in which computing is increasingly mobile and interconnected, and energy management is becoming more and more important.

More information: The internet of everything

The key question is whether the creative avenues left open to computing companies can provide similar payoffs to Moore’s Law after it ends. If Moore's Law does come screeching to a halt, and alternative new designs don't find a way to overcome new obstacles, this doesn't mean computing devices will just stop getting better.

"Think about what happened to airplanes,” as computer scientist Daniel Reed told Nature earlier this year. "A Boeing 787 doesn't go any faster than a 707 did in the 1950s —but they are very different airplanes ... Innovation will absolutely continue —but it will be more nuanced and complicated."

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