Moore’s Law: 50 years of technological, economic and social change

When Gordon E. Moore made his observation that the number of transistors within an integrated circuit had roughly doubled each year in the fledgling semiconductor industry, he could have had no idea of the colossal impact his statement would have.

Writing for the 35th anniversary issue of “Electronics” magazine, Moore’s article titled "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits," is matter-of-fact, reading as an observation, rather than a profound prediction.

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“The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years.”

And yet, without entering the realm of fanciful prophesising, Moore was well aware that the rapid advancement of semiconductor technology would bring significant benefits to society.

“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.”

“But the biggest potential lies in the production of large systems. In telephone communications, integrated circuits in digital filters will separate channels on multiplex equipment. Integrated circuits will also switch telephone circuits and perform data processing.”

Moore’s Law, as his observation has now been dubbed, is not a law at all nor was it intended to be a prediction, but the ramifications of that statement made back in April 1965 are still being felt today. The exponential growth of semiconductor density is now used as a benchmark for progress in the industry, driving technological innovation, social change and economic growth.

From a purely technical standpoint, the improvement driven by Moore’s Law has been remarkable. Looking at the company that Moore helped found in 1968, Intel’s processor technology has improved markedly in a relatively short space of time.

When compared with the Intel 4004 launched in 1971, a version of the Core i5 processor released last year delivers 3,500 times the level of performance and is 90,000 times more efficient, and yet is 60,000 times less expensive. An Intel-based Android phone, if using 1971 technology, would require a micro-processor the size of a parking space.

As processors continue to get smaller, while the number of transistors within them increase, keeping pace with Moore’s Law has proven increasingly challenging, but it is this very challenge that encourages innovation.

The compulsion to see Moore’s Law continue has led to a number of advances within the manufacturing process of semiconductors. Through the addition of strained silicon to its 90 and 65-nanometre processes and the use of gate-oxide material to its 45-nm and 32-nm processes, Intel was able to continue Moore’s Law into the early 2000s. The use of a 3D transistor structure has seen it remain valid into the present day.

However, technological innovation in of itself, while impressive, has little impact when considered in isolation. The true impact of Moore’s Law can only really be assessed when it’s economic and social implications are also considered.

Economically, Moore’s Law has be responsible for the foundation and growth of entire industries. It is no exaggeration to say that the digital economy, upon which much of the Western world relies, would be unrecognisable if not for the advancement of the semiconductor industry.

A look at Interbrand’s list of 2014’s best global brands reveals that many of the top 10 could not exist without the rapid technological growth experienced in recent times. Apple (ranked first), Google (second), IBM (fourth), Microsoft (fifth) and Samsung (seventh) all owe their global standing to Moore’s Law, but it is not only technology firms that have benefited.

The exponential decrease in the cost and power consumption of computer processors has made technology more accessible than ever before. Companies ranging across a multitude of industries have utilised this accessibility to grow, become more successful and deliver improved services to customers. Digital marketing firms, social media brands and the entertainment industry are just a few examples of businesses that have advanced and continue to advance alongside Moore’s Law.

The CGI at the heart of hugely successful films such as Toy Story and Avatar may not have been possible without the exponential growth in processing power we have experienced.

Society, too, stands to benefit from this continued technological advancement. Computers have enabled unbridled creativity in a number of areas and helped us to communicate and share ideas over long distances.

Even everyday objects that we takes for granted, such as medicinal drugs created by pharmaceutical companies and electric toothbrushes created with the help of CAD technology are in some way at least, a result of the impetus instigated by Moore’s Law. The technology predicted to define our future, from autonomous cars to the Internet of Things also hinges on whether Moore’s Law can be sustained.

Of course, not all the societal change stemming from Gordon Moore’s prediction is seen as universally positive. The influx of extra screens and content vying for our attention has, some would claim, made us more disconnected than ever. Shorter attention spans, a lack of empathy and the destruction of personal privacy are also, in some part at least, the result of technological expansion.

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As the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law nears we are reminded more than ever of the wealth of possibilities afforded to us by technology. Instead of passively guiding us into the future, Moore’s Law has provided the impetus for the kind of innovation that was once scarcely thought possible.