The world that we live in today is fundamentally different because of a four-page article published 50 years ago today in Electronics magazine. It is inspiring for me to try to quantify its impact.
The article, "Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits," was written by Gordon Moore, then director of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor in what would later be called Silicon Valley. Three years later, in 1968, Moore teamed up with Robert Noyce to co-found Intel. That company’s name is an abbreviation for the integrated electronics on a silicon-based computer chip.
Moore's Law was Gordon Moore’s prediction that computing power would double every 18 months. Each new generation of microprocessor contains twice as many transistors as the last one. Each new hard drive, smartphone and smartwatch stores more bits of data than the last. Each new form of fiber-optic wires or radio transmission passes information faster.
The aspirational projection embedded in Moore's Law is the reason we now enjoy the benefits of the digital world in which we live. It has been bountiful for our economy, our culture and our society.
Consider what Moore's Law’s has wrought:
In 1965, Fairchild was selling transistors for about $150 each. Today, the price-per-transistor of Intel's Core i5 processors is $0.00000014. That means you can buy 70,000 transistors for a penny.
If a smartphone were built today using technology from the era of Moore's Law, the phone’s microprocessor alone would be the size of a parking space.
Compared with Intel’s first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, today’s 14 nanometer processors deliver 3,500 times the performance, at 90,000 times the efficiency and at 1/60,000th the cost.
Moore's Law has indeed been transformative. But not every industry has been equally impacted:
If the fuel efficiency for cars improved at the rate of Moore's Law, you could drive one car your entire life on a single tank of gas.
If skyscrapers dropped in price at the pace of Moore's Law, you buy a tower for less than the cost of a personal computer. Or if they grew in height at that pace, a building would be 35 times the height of Mount Everest.
Man's voyage to the moon in 1969 took three days. If Moore's Law applied to space travel, you'd be there now in one minute.
I frequently think about the impact that Moore's Law has had — and that it may yet have — in terms of the parable of the wise man who invented the game of chess.
The ruler of India was so pleased with this inventive game that he decreed that the wise man be rewarded with a prize of his choosing.
The wise man told the ruler that he would like just one grain of rice for the first square of the chessboard, and double that number for each succeeding square. In other words, he wanted two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square and so forth.
The request initially seemed to be modest to the ruler, who was not well-versed in the mathematics of exponential growth. But the ruler’s servants calculated the amount of rice to be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains!
That amount of rice equals 210 billion tons, sufficient to cover the entire territory of India in a layer of rice one meter thick. Alternatively, the amount of rice fields necessary to produce the rice would cover the surface of the earth, oceans included, twice.
Peter Gillespie, the chief marketing officer for the semiconductor industry group SEMI, analogizes: "Missing the power of exponential growth can bankrupt nations and bury companies. Not playing to the metronome beat of Moore’s Law has been the demise of many companies — and playing to the beat, the success of those thriving today.”
Put another way, in the 50 years that we’ve been living life under Moore's Law, we’ve experienced roughly 33 generations of technological change. That's barely halfway across the chessboard!
Gordon Moore didn’t set out to change the world with his article, and he certainly “didn’t predict when this trend was going to end,” he recounted in a recent interview. “It’s a good thing because I’m sure I would have been surprised.”4 comments on this story
And yet it is “among the clearest illustrations of how a single, powerful idea can move the world. Moore’s Law is not a physical law, not a regulation, not a market requirement,” writes Gillespie. “Moore’s Law is a simple, straightforward vision, with the power of exponential growth."