Edge of Innovation

50 years on, imagine a world without Moore’s Law


Moore’s Law has driven computing design for the past 50 years. What would the world look like without it? That touchscreen smartphone you own might not exist. Ditto tablets, Ultrabooks and your favourite games console. Computers, meanwhile, would be bigger and slower; cars far less efficient; TVs nowhere near flat. Heck, there might not be an Internet, so you’d probably be reading this article in a magazine.

Remember those?

Of course, Moore’s Law isn’t strictly a law. It’s more of an observation, or in Gordon Moore’s own words: “a wild extrapolation.” This extrapolation was published 50 years ago in Electronics Magazine on April 19, 1965, where Moore (pictured above) theorised that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every year.

“I just thought it was a general trend we were going to have,” said Moore of his famous prophecy. “But it was far more accurate than I could have anticipated.”

Moore went on to co-found Intel and, while Moore’s Law was revised in 1975 to represent a doubling of the transistor count every two years, it has become a blueprint for computing. Over five decades, it has driven manufacturers to push the boundaries of semiconductor technology to make processors that are faster, smaller and cheaper.

In 1971, the Intel 4004 had 2,300 transistors. The new 5th gen Intel Core chip has 1.3 billion

For example: the first microprocessor, the 1971 Intel 4004 chip, incorporated 2,300 transistors. Just over 10 years later, the Intel 80286 (1982) boasted 134,000 transistors. Fast forward another eleven years, and the first Intel Pentium chip (1993) squeezed in 3.1 million transistors. More recently, the Pentium 4 (2004) increased the count to 125 million transistors, while today’s 5th generation Intel Core processor has 1.3 billion transistors inside.

Electronics Magazine, Gordon Moore, Moore's Law
Gordon Moore’s law of transistor doubling was first published in Electronics Magazine, 50 years ago on April 19, 1965.

Over the past 50 years of Moore’s Law, we’ve seen computers the size of a room shrink down to fit on a single chip. Compared to that first Intel 4004 microprocessor, Intel’s 14nm chips can now deliver 3,500 times the performance at 90,000 times the efficiency, and at 1/60,000th the cost.

To put it another way, Moore’s Law has had such a profound impact that more than six million of Intel’s Tri-Gate transistors could fit on the full stop at the end of this sentence.

infographic moore's law

Without Moore’s Law, we might be stuck in the technological equivalent of 1985, when home computers had 30MB HDDs, 5.25-inch floppy disk drives and 256-colour graphics. Imagine life without Google, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook, eBay or Netflix. We’d still be renting DVDs from Blockbuster, making calls from street corner telephone boxes and doing all our shopping on the high street.

Thanks to Moore’s Law, the future is almost hard to imagine

And Moore’s Law isn’t finished yet. “Given that Moore’s Law is probably going to continue to drive technology for the next 15-20 years,” says Rob Enderle, President & Principal Analyst Enderle Group, “the kinds of things we’re going to see in the future are almost hard to imagine.”

In the short term, the continual drive to build faster, smaller and cheaper is heralding an astonishing age of self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality experiences, commercial space travel, personalised health monitoring systems, big data number-crunching, smarter homes and increasingly intelligent machines.

infographic moore's law2

When the world’s fastest supercomputer (Aurora) comes online in 2018, Intel Xeon Phi processors will enable it to perform 180 quadrillion (180,000,000,000,000,000) calculations per second.

I want to see the next 50 years of Moore’s Law

“When I look at what Moore’s Law has done for the last 50 years,” says Dan Hutcheson, CEO & Chairman of VLSI Research, “I see the immense creativity of the scientists and the engineers, how they continually come up with new ideas and drive the technology [forward]… I want to see the next 50 years of Moore’s Law. It’s had this amazing effect on, not only our economy, but on our lives.” – Dean Evans

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