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It’s Official: Moore's Law Is Nearing Its End

The 51-year-old computing principle is now butting heads with the realities of physics and economics.

It’s Official: Moore's Law Is Nearing Its End

Gordon Moore with Robert Noyce at Intel in 1970

[Photo: Flickr user Intel Free Press]

In 1965 Gordon Moore, who would go on to co-found Intel, wrote a paper in which he described what has become known as "Moore’s law." It stated that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double roughly every two years, meaning, in theory, that every two years the processors inside our devices would get twice as fast and be able to do twice as much. For the better part of the '70s, '80s, '90s, and into the first decade of the 21st century, Moore’s law proved to be correct—but only because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a recent article in the science journal Nature, which argues that the prophecy is about to come to an end.

Instead of being a natural consequence of improved engineering and fabrication methods, the amount of transistors on a chip only doubled every few years-–as Moore’s law said it would—because chipmakers deliberately chose to match what the law said by agreeing to produce microprocessors on a roadmap that synced with Moore’s prediction. Next month, says Nature, the worldwide semiconductor industry will formally acknowledge it can no longer keep pace with the doubling of transistors every two years.

The reasons are due to physics and economics. As microprocessors circuits have shrunk—currently about 14 nanometers across—the increasing the number of circuits packed into a smaller size leads to greater amounts of heat given off. When devices used to be in the form of large desktops, this heat was easier to dissipate. But our go-to computing devices are now smartphones, and their small size doesn’t allow for the kind of heat dissipation that future, increasingly faster microprocessors would require. As Nature points out, no one wants to hold a hot smartphone.

The other reason for abandoning the Moore’s law roadmap is economic. In order for silicon chips to do more, they must pack more transistors in a smaller space. The smaller the chips become, and the more transistors they pack in, the more costly they are to manufacture, due to new fabrication facilities needed to produce them. Each fab facility can cost billions of dollars, and not many companies have the financial resources to support them.

Due to this, the worldwide semiconductor industry will say next month that, for the first time, its research and development plans will not be based around Moore’s law. Instead, Nature reports that it will follow what could 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."

However, the announcement only applies to current technology, which uses silicon to make chips. Other materials could be used in the future that could break through the physical and economic barriers hindering Moore's law today.

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