Time is running out for Moore’s Law as chip developments reach atomic levels

Chip power could reach its limits within the next 20 years, says Moore.

Chip power could reach its limits within the next 20 years, says Moore.

Moore’s Law, the guiding ethos behind the development of the semiconductors that power IT equipment, has 10 to 20 years left to run, according to Gordon Moore, the man who formulated it.

Moore predicted that processing power – measured by the number of transistors on a chip – would double every year, later revised to 18 months, driving down the cost of computing.

The godfather of the microprocessor, speaking last week on the 40th anniversary of the publication of his visionary law, said, “Nothing like this can continue forever. The dimensions are small enough now that we are approaching the size of atoms.

"I can see that [the law] will progress for the next two to three generations. We have 10 to 20 years before we reach a fundamental limit.”

Even so, developments in chip design will allow engineers to put 20 to 30 billion transistors on a chip, he predicted. This will overcome many of the limitations presented by working at atomic level on chip design.

Moore admitted he was a sceptical about whether nanochips would replace traditional integrated circuits. He said the semiconductor industry had invested $100bn on research and development on integrated circuits.

“We are seeing technology developed in integrated circuits being applied in other fields like gene chips to do biological analysis much more quickly,” he said. Another example he pointed to was microfluidics: a small chemical laboratory built on the same technology as integrated circuits.

Moore’s article, published 40 years ago, predicted how chips would develop between 1965 and 1975. It even predicted the growth of home computers.

He said 1965 was “early days” for integrated circuits, which were utilised principally in military systems, and
he recalled that these were too expensive to permeate the industry.

“I wanted to get across [the message] that integrated circuits would be the route to cheap electronics,” he said.

At the time the article was published, the most complex production integrated circuit had around 30 components. “In labs we had 60 component-integrated circuits,” he said. “We doubled complexity every year and extrapolated every year from 60 to 60,000 components by making complex circuits.”

Moore was surprised by the accuracy of his predictions. He said, “I frankly didn’t expect [Moore’s Law] to be at all precise; but it turned out [to be] more precise.

By making more complex circuits with smaller dimensions, costs have continued to drop and performance increased, Moore said.

“[Moore’s Law] has been a self-fulfilling prophecy as industry realises it needs to keep on this path,” he said. He conceded, however, that he was concerned that software has not kept up with chip development.

“Software does seem to lag behind hardware development. It is a real challenge but I think the industry has done well.”

But, Moore said, the challenge remained. As the user interface increases, complexity seems to grow to take on board new functionality. “We seem to be losing ground on usability,” he said.

Read more by Moore
“Integrated electronics will make electronic techniques more generally available throughout all of society, performing many functions that presently are done inadequately by other techniques or not done at all. The principal advantages will be lower costs and greatly simplified design pay-offs.”
Gordon Moore, Electronics, Volume 38, Number 8, April 19, 1965

Read Moore’s paper in full

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