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Moore's law

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Growth of transistor counts for Intel processors (dots) and Moore's Law (upper line=18 months; lower line=24 months)

Moore's law is the empirical observation that at our rate of technological development, the complexity of an integrated circuit, with respect to minimum component cost will double in about 24 months.

It is attributed to Gordon E. Moore, a co-founder of Intel (not to be confused with another G.E. Moore, the philosopher George Edward Moore, the creator of Moore's paradox). However, Moore had heard Douglas Engelbart's similar observation possibly in 1960. Engelbart, a co-inventor of today's mechanical computer mouse, believed that the ongoing improvement of integrated circuits would eventually make interactive computing feasible.

Contents

Earliest form

Moore's original statement can be found in his publication "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits", Electronics Magazine 19 April, 1965:

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. That means by 1975, the number of components per integrated circuit for minimum cost will be 65,000. I believe that such a large circuit can be built on a single wafer.

Under the assumption that chip "complexity" is proportional to the number of transistors, regardless of what they do, the law has largely held the test of time to date. However, one could argue that the per-transistor complexity is less in large RAM cache arrays than in execution units. From this perspective, the validity of Moore's law may be more questionable.

Gordon Moore's observation was not named a "law" by Moore himself; that honor goes to Caltech professor, VLSI pioneer, and entrepreneur Carver Mead.

In 1975, Moore projected a doubling only every two years. He is adamant that he himself never said "every 18 months", but that is how it has been quoted. The SEMATECH roadmap follows a 24 month cycle.

Formulations of Moore's law

The most popular formulation is of the doubling of the number of transistors on integrated circuits (a rough measure of computer processing power) every 18 months. At the end of the 1970s, Moore's Law became known as the limit for the number of transistors on the most complex chips. However, it is also common to cite Moore's law to refer to the rapidly continuing advance in computing power per unit cost.

A similar progression has held for hard disk storage available per unit cost—in fact, the rate of progression in disk storage over the past 10 years or so has actually been faster than for semiconductors—although, largely because of production cost issues, hard drive performance increases have lagged significantly.

Another version claims that RAM storage capacity increases at the same rate as processing power. However, memory speeds have not increased as fast as CPU speeds in recent years, leading to a heavy reliance on caching in current computer systems.

Historical analysis of Moore's law has shown that its interpretations have qualitatively changed over the years and that it has not very accurately described developments in semiconductor technology. For example, CPU Monthly shows a month-by-month display of Top Processors from Intel and AMD which gives relatively little evidence that the law continues to operate as stated.

On April 11, 2005, Intel posted a $10,000 reward for an original, pristine copy of the Electronics Magazine where Moore's article was first published [1] (http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=technologyNews&storyID=8148789). The hunt was started, in part, because Moore lost his personal copy after loaning it out. It soon became apparent to librarians that their copies of the article were in danger of being stolen, so many libraries (including Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) located and secured the articles. The University of Illinois was not so lucky, however, as the day after Intel announced the reward, they found that one of the two copies they owned was missing (silicon.com (http://networks.silicon.com/webwatch/0,39024667,39129574,00.htm), 2005). Intel has stated that they will only purchase library copies of the article from the libraries themselves - it would be easy to determine as most libraries bind their old magazines and it would require cutting the article from the bound book if a thief was to sell the article (NC News Wire (http://newsobserver.com/news/ncwire_news/story/2332707p-8710798c.html), 2005). Intel ultimately awarded the prize to David Clark, an engineer living in Surrey, England who had decades of old issues of Electronics Magazine stored under his floorboards. (BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4472549.stm), 2005)

An industry driver

Although Moore's law was initially made in the form of an observation and prediction, the more widely it became accepted, the more it served as a goal for an entire industry. This drove both marketing and engineering departments of semiconductor manufacturers to focus enormous energy aiming for the specified increase in processing power that it was presumed one or more of their competitors would soon actually attain. In this regard it can be viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, just as the "law" has itself taken on mythic status somewhat independent of actual facts, its significance to technology growth may be prone to a degree of mythologising.

The implications of Moore's law for computer component suppliers is very significant. A typical major design project (such as an all-new CPU or hard drive) takes between two and five years to reach production-ready status. In consequence, component manufacturers face enormous timescale pressures—just a few weeks delay in a major project can spell the difference between great success and massive losses, even bankruptcy.

Expressed as "a doubling every 18 months", Moore's law suggests the phenomenal progress of technology in recent years. Expressed on a shorter timescale, however, Moore's law equates to an average performance improvement in the industry as a whole of over 1% a week. For a manufacturer competing in the cut-throat CPU, hard drive or RAM markets, a new product that is expected to take three years to develop and is just two or three months late is 10 to 15% smaller, slower, or bulkier than the directly competing products, and is usually unsellable.

Future trends

As of Q4 2004, current PC processors are fabricated at the 130 nm and 90 nm levels, with 65 nm chips being announced by the end of 2005. A decade ago, chips were built at a 500 nm level. Companies are working on using nanotechnology to solve the complex engineering problems involved in producing chips at the 45 nm, 30 nm, and even smaller levels—a process that will postpone the industry meeting the limits of Moore's Law.

Recent computer industry technology "roadmaps" (http://public.itrs.net/) predict (as of 2001) that Moore's Law will continue for several chip generations. Depending on the doubling time used in the calculations, this could mean up to 100 fold increase in transistor counts on a chip in a decade. The semiconductor industry technology roadmap uses a three-year doubling time for microprocessors, leading to about nine-fold increase in a decade.

Since the rapid exponential improvement could put 100 GHz personal computers in every home and 20 GHz devices in every pocket, some commentators have speculated that sooner or later computers will meet or exceed any conceivable need for computation. This is only true for some problems—there are others where exponential increases in processing power are matched or exceeded by exponential increases in complexity as the problem size increases. See computational complexity theory and complexity classes P and NP for a (somewhat theoretical) discussion of such problems, which occur very commonly in applications such as scheduling.

Extrapolation partly based on Moore's Law has led futurologists such as Vernor Vinge, Bruce Sterling and Ray Kurzweil to speculate about a technological singularity. However, on April 13, 2005, Gordon Moore himself stated in an interview that the law may not hold valid for too long, since transistors may reach the limits of miniaturization at atomic levels.

In terms of size [of transistor] you can see that we're approaching the size of atoms which is a fundamental barrier, but it'll be two or three generations before we get that far—but that's as far out as we've ever been able to see. We have another 10 to 20 years before we reach a fundamental limit. By then they'll be able to make bigger chips and have transistor budgets in the billions.
(techworld) (http://www.techworld.com/opsys/news/index.cfm?NewsID=3477)

Kurzweil replies that although around the year 2019, if Moore's Law keeps up, transistor features will be just a few atoms in width, and the strategy of ever finer photolithography will have run its course, this does not mean the end of Moore's Law. He notes that:

Moore's Law of Integrated Circuits was not the first, but the fifth paradigm to provide accelerating price-performance. Computing devices have been consistently multiplying in power (per unit of time) from the mechanical calculating devices used in the 1890 U.S. Census, to Turing's relay-based "Robinson" machine that cracked the Nazi enigma code, to the CBS vacuum tube computer that predicted the election of Eisenhower, to the transistor-based machines used in the first space launches, to the integrated-circuit-based personal computers
(Kurzweil net) (http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1)

Thus Kurzeweil concludes that it is likely that some new type of technology will replace current integrated-circuit technology, and Moore's Law will hold true long after 2020. Kurzweil extends his analysis to include technologies from far before the integrated circuit to future forms of computation. He believes that the exponential growth of Moore's Law will continue beyond the use of integrated circuits into technologies that will lead to the technological singularity. The Law of Accelerating Returns described by Ray Kurzweil has in many ways altered the public's perception of Moore's law. It is a common (but mistaken) belief that Moore's Law makes predictions regarding all forms of technology, when really it only concerns semiconductor circuits. Many futurists still use the term "Moore's Law" to describe ideas like those put forth by Kurzweil.

Krauss and Starkman announced an ultimate limit of around 600 years in their paper "Universal Limits of Computation" (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0404510&e=10129), based on rigorous estimation of total information-processing capacity of any system in the Universe.

Then again, the law has often met obstacles that appeared insurmountable, before soon surmounting them. In that sense, Mr Moore says, he now sees his law as more beautiful than he had realised. "Moore's Law is a violation of Murphy's Law. Everything gets better and better."

Other considerations

Not all aspects of computing technology develop in capacities and speed according to Moore's Law. Random Access Memory (RAM) speeds and hard drive seek times improve at best at a few percentage points per year.

Another, sometimes misunderstood, point is that exponentially improved hardware does not necessarily imply exponentially improved software to go with it. The productivity of software developers most assuredly does not increase exponentially with the improvement in hardware, but by most measures has increased only slowly and fitfully over the decades.

Moreover there is popular misconception that the clock speed of a processor determines its speed. This actually also depends on the number of instructions per tick which can be executed (as well as the complexity of each instruction, see MIPS, RISC and CISC), and as such the clock speed can only be used for comparision between two identical circuits. Of course, other factors are to be taken into consideration such as the bus size and speed of the peripherals. As such, most popular evaluations of "computer speed" are generally biased without an understanding of the underlaying technology. This is especially true now that popular manufacturers play with public perception of speed, focusing on advertising the clock rate of new products.

It is interesting to note that as the cost of computer power continues to fall (from the perspective of a consumer), the cost for producers to achieve Moore's Law has followed the opposite trend: R&D, manufacturing, and test costs have increased steadily with each new generation of chips. As the cost of semiconductor equipment is expected to continue increasing, manufacturers must sell larger and larger quantities of chips to remain profitable. (The cost to "tapeout" a chip at 0.18u was roughly $300,000 USD. The cost to "tapeout" a chip at 90nm exceeds $750,000 USD, and the cost is expected to exceed $1.0M USD for 65nm.) In recent years, analysts have observed a decline in the number of "design starts" at advanced process nodes (0.13u and below.) While these observations were made in the period after the year 2000 economic downturn, the decline may be evidence that traditional manufacturers in the long-term global market cannot economically sustain Moore's Law.

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