His Word Is Law

Face time with Gordon Moore

Age: 72
Family: Married, two children
Smart guy: "integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers and personal communications equipment." (1965)
Tough guy: "Gordon can show extreme displeasure while moving fewer facial muscles than anyone else I know." — Andy Grove
Nice guy: Moore has pledged more than $5 billion of Intel stock to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Gordon Moore won enduring fame nearly four decades ago as the creator of Moore's Law, a radical insight about computing. Every year or two, the Intel cofounder declared, it would be possible to pack twice as many transistors into an integrated circuit as before, which meant that calculating power would constantly become cheaper and faster. And so it has. As Moore's Law has kept working its magic, enabling everything from desktop computers and cell phones to the Internet itself, our very expectations about the future have been reshaped as well. Instead of feeling stuck in a world with immovable limits, we look forward to greater possibilities each year — if we can only expand our dreams fast enough.

For a man whose work has led to enormous transformations across the world economy, Moore, who recently retired, is surprisingly calm and soft-spoken. Sit down to chat with him, and for at least the first few minutes, you must strain to hear the ends of his sentences. But then he starts to light up, with thoughts about everything from ants to education.

How did you create a business in which you could make things cheaper, faster, and better, all at once? Isn't that impossible?

I call it a violation of Murphy's Law, which says that if something can go wrong, it will. If you make things smaller, everything gets better simultaneously. If the auto industry had advanced as fast as the semiconductor industry, cars would go a million miles an hour. It would be cheaper to throw away your Rolls-Royce than to park it downtown for the evening. But of course, the new cars would only be two inches long and a half-inch wide. That's the essence of it. Our technology made everything better as it got smaller.

I've been amazed that we haven't had some unexpected physical limitation come in and stop our ability to continue on that curve. But we've stayed on it for 36 years now. Of course, this only works if you have a phenomenally elastic market, where demand keeps increasing as you cut prices. That's been the case for us. We now make more than 10,000 trillion transistors for our chips every year.

That's a huge number. What's a good way to fathom it?

I used to say that we made one transistor for every ant on Earth. Now it's 10.

So as your output has kept advancing, have your customers urged you to help them build things that seemed unimaginable?

Actually, on the big changes, it's been the other way around. The customer doesn't know he needs something really radical. He needs to be presented with this new opportunity. In the late 1970s, customers didn't ask for microprocessors. They were improvised by one of our engineers, Ted Hoff, as a way to make a certain family of calculator chips for a Japanese customer. Then, lo and behold, they became an enabling technology for the PC.

When did the Internet first intrigue you?

By 1983, Intel was using computers everywhere. The guy running our manufacturing, Gerry Parker, got me a computer so I could see what was going on there. Once I had it sitting on my desk, I obviously hooked up to email — and things took off from there.

Has it been happy PC moments ever since?

Well, my wife is not very tolerant of things that don't work well. One day at home, she picked up her laptop, took it outside, and threw it in the garbage can. It turned out that her AOL connection was crashing a lot more than she found acceptable. I had to go out and retrieve it. I couldn't bear to see it go to the dump.

Every few months, even more computing power arrives. What can we do with it?

We could have really good speech recognition. Eventually there will be a technology that lets a computer understand what we're saying, in the sense that it can give a logical answer to a question. And that will transform the way people use computers and interact with them.

You're on the board of Gilead Sciences, a small drug-discovery company. What have you learned from that involvement?

Their field is so dramatically different from electronics; it's really fun to look at the comparison. It takes several years from the time they first have a potential new drug to the time it's approved, and then they have a multiyear monopoly on it. In our industry, there's a rapid rise and fall of products. Things we were making a few years ago don't exist anymore.

What attracted you to biotech?

It's exciting! Things going on now will have a big impact over the next 20, 50, or 100 years. We want to reach the point where we'll be able to look at individuals and actually anticipate a lot of the problems that they're going to have during their life, just by looking at their genomes.

Could we extend the human life span? Should we?

As a conservationist, I'm interested in preserving biodiversity. So I'm concerned about the pressure of the human population on everything else on Earth. If you look at some projections, there's a good chance that the world's population will peak in about 50 years and then move down after that. So that'll be the period of maximum pressure on the earth's resources — a bottleneck, if you will.

If we extend everybody's life span, that means the bottleneck is going to be longer and more severe. So I think our obligation to die — and make room for everything else — isn't something that should be given up casually.

Why isn't there anything approaching Moore's Law in education?

It is very frustrating. It's hard to come up with ways to increase productivity in education. In fact, there's a strong pressure to go the other way. Reducing class size decreases productivity. I still hope there's some way to use technology to increase productivity. But it's clearly not just a matter of putting a few computers in a schoolroom.

It's especially hard for K - 12. I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and freshman chemistry was taken by about 3,000 students. So you achieve great efficiencies in that kind of a class. But you can't teach first graders that way.

Add New Comment

0 Comments