Gordon Moore, now 86, is still spry and still given to the dry sense of humor for which he has always been known. In an Intel interview this year he said that he had Googled “Moore’s Law” and “Murphy’s Law,” and Moore’s beat Murphy’s by two to one,” demonstrating how ubiquitous is the usage of Dr. Moore’s observation. This week we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the April 19, 1965 issue of Electronics magazine, in which Dr. Moore first described his vision of doubling the number of transistors on a chip every year or so.
It may seem geeky to be interested in the details of 14 nanometer (billionth of a meter) integrated circuit design rules, 7 nanometer FinFET (transistor) widths, or 5 nanometer line wire widths, but the fact of matter is that these arcane topics are driving the future of technology applications, telecommunications, business and economic productivity. As just one example, this week’s top telecommunications business news is the proposed merger of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent, with the vision to deploy a 5 G (fifth generation) LTE (long term evolution) mobile telephony network. Building out such a high speed voice and data network is almost entirely dependent on the power of the microprocessors in the system and ultimately Moore’s Law. Nokia apparently believes that it can deploy this technology sooner rather than later and essentially leap frog the competition. My UBC Management students will recall that in my first university teaching experience in Industry Analysis, I chose to expose them to the semiconductor industry for this exact reason. Semiconductors are in virtually every electrical device we use on a daily basis.
However, as we cross this milestone we are able to see that we are near the limits of the physics of Moore’s Law. International Business Strategies, a Los Gatos based consulting firm, estimates that only a decade ago, it cost only $16 million to design and test a new very large scale integated circuit (VLSI), but that today the design and testing cost has skyrocketed to $132 million. Keep in mind that the cost of design, fabrication and testing of bleeding edge IC’s has been reduced dramatically over the decades by automation, also driven by Moore’s Law. So we are seeing a horizon line. That said, entirely new technologies are already in the laboratories and may, in a way, extend Moore’s Law, and the dramatic improvements in cost and productivity that come with it, but through entirely new and different means.