With the rapid pace of change in today’s digital world, it is easy to dismiss, or certainly forget, that the technology we take for granted today, such as personal computers and smartphones, only exist as the result of years and years of pioneering work. Moore's Law, the observation that semiconductor density is rising at an exponential rate, was uttered 50 years ago but continues to be as relevant today as it was in 1965, perhaps more so.
The future of the smartphone industry, wearables and the Internet of Things all depend on the technology industry developing, faster, smaller, more efficient and cheaper processors. For now, at least, chipmakers like Intel are managing to maintain Moore's Law, but it is becoming increasingly difficult.
Intel missed its predicted target of implementing its 14nm process in 2013, with yield problems setting back the launch another 12 months. Intel’s 10nm process, which was expected to be in use later this year, will now not be unveiled until 2017.
Furthermore, as the properties of silicon change when using it in very small sizes, the difficulty of manufacturing technology nodes much smaller than this becomes much more difficult. It is said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and it is likely that innovation will once again step in to prolong Moore's Law for the foreseeable future, but this cannot go on indefinitely. Already, many industry experts are announcing that the chances of Moore's Law continuing for another 50 years are slim.
"I pick about 2020 as the earliest we could call [Moore's Law] dead," explained DARPA Director and Pentium processor architect Robert Colwell in 2013. "And I'm picking 7nm. You could talk me into 2022. You might even be able to talk me into 5nm. But you're not going to talk me into 1nm. I think physics dictates against that."
For the next few years, however, Intel has high hopes that the continuation of Moore's Law can bring about even greater innovation than seen previously The exponential nature of Moore's Law means that the next ten years may be more ground-breaking than the previous 50 and Millennials, who have grown up with technology, may be better placed to take advantage of this technological growth.
Those within the semiconductor industry believe that Moore's Law will see computers become more integrated into our daily lives – to use Intel Futurist Steve Power Brown’s words, “the digital becomes physical.”
Although perhaps apocryphal, the quote often attributed to IBM CEO Thomas Watson in 1943, that “there is a world market for maybe five computers,” highlights how different the computing landscape was prior to Moore's Law. In the early days of the industry, computers were large scale machines, taking up whole rooms and reserved for academics. Now billions of people all over the world have access to powerful computers that fit into the palms of their hands.
The continuation of Moore's Law is predicted to make computing even more pervasive. Connected cars, smart appliances - soon objects are unlikely to be thought of as “computers,” but many will be powered by cutting-edge technology and connected to the Internet nonetheless.
However, just as giant vacuum-tube computers were eventually replaced by transistor powered devices, it is likely that a new form of technology will be developed to make Moore's Law obsolete.
One possible innovation that could extinguish Moore's Law rather than extend it, is quantum computing.
Quantum computing utilised particles rather than transistors in order to carry out calculations and processes at an extremely fast rate. One of the foremost quantum computing firms is D-Wave Systems and CEO Vern Brownell believes that the technology will see advances that dwarf those being experienced by transistor-based computing.
“You will see many orders of magnitude improvement on each generation, rather than the 2X or 5X that we typically see in classical computing,” he said.
Although D-Wave has seen support from the likes of Google and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, quantum computing is still in its infancy and is experiencing the kind of teething problems that the semiconductor business faced in the 1970s.
However, quantum computing is continuing to make progress and is set to release a 1,000 qubit computer in the next few years. In fact, the quantum computing industry already has a prediction of its own by which to measure its future success.
Rose’s Law, name after D-Wave’s founder, states that the number of qubits, the particles driving quantum computers, will quadruple every two years.
When, or indeed if, quantum computing or another technological innovation makes Moore's Law obsolete is impossible to know, but if it is ultimately laid to rest, it can still be held up as fantastic driving force for change in the 20th and 21st centuries. Everything must come to end, and considering Gordon Moore only expected his prediction to last 10 years, to see it still going strong after 50 is testament to the vision and determination of the entire computer industry.