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Behind the Ubiquitous Microchip
Intel Co-founder Explains Computer Business Basic Law

By Ioana Patringenaru | September 25, 2006

Computer chips are everywhere in our daily lives, from our cars to our appliances. They keep getting faster and their price keeps getting lower, following a principle often called Moore’s Law. But the law’s author, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, predicted this month at UCSD that this juggernaut of innovation will eventually slow down.

Gordon Moore
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore spoke Sept. 14 at UCSD.

Moore came to campus Sept. 14 to receive the 2006 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest, named after William Nierenberg, who led the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD from 1965 to 1986.

Moore often says that if Al Gore invented the Internet, then he invented the exponential, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox told an audience of about 160 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Moore and his wife, Betty, have made great contributions to Scripps, said Nico Nierenberg, William Nierenberg’s son.

After he received a bronze medal and a $25,000 check, Moore gave a talk titled “Behind the Ubiquitous Microchip.” Audience members, young and old, listened intently as he explained the fundamentals behind Moore’s Law and the law’s impact on the computer business.

In 1965, Moore predicted that the number of transistors the industry would be able to place on a chip would double every year. In 1975, he updated his prediction to once every two years. Moore’s Law, as it became known, has held true ever since.

“I’ve never been involved with a product whose price goes up with time,” Moore said.

The cost of a transistor has dropped from about $1 in 1968 to about $0.00000001 in 2004, he pointed out.

“That’s a nanobuck,” Moore said. “That’s nanotechnology for you.”

Gordon Moore
Moore came to UCSD to receive the Nierenberg Prize. He poses here with from left to right, Tony Haymet,
the new director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and Nico Nierenberg.

So why does Moore’s Law still hold true today? Improvements in manufacturing and in the design of integrated circuits have allowed companies to make increasingly smaller and denser chips, Moore said. Today, each chip carries one billion to two billion transistors. Each feature on a chip measures less than 100 nanometers, roughly the size of the AIDS virus. Manufacturers use a 193-nanometer laser to print features that are one-third of the length of a light wave, Moore said.

“We’re almost violating the last of physics here,” he said.

What drives this quest for innovation? Making things smaller on a chip makes them better. Chips become more reliable. They also become cheaper -- and the computer industry badly needs the savings. Real estate on a chip wafer doesn’t come cheap. In fact, its price tag is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion an acre, Moore said.

Meanwhile, cheaper and faster transistors have enabled today’s technologies.

Microchips are everywhere in our daily lives, from our cars to our appliances, Moore said. The number of transistors manufactured worldwide every year has increased to 1019 and Moore said that he’s starting to run out of analogies to help audiences grasp the sheer enormity of that number. At 1016 to 1017, he could use the total number of ants on the planet as a comparison point. At 1018, he used the total number of printed characters. At 1019, he is now talking about one billion transistors per year for every person on the planet, or, more likely, about six billion transistors a year for the one billion people who have made the transition to the information age.

“To me, this is the basic technology of the information age and it still has quite a ways to go,” Moore said.

So what lies in the future of the ubiquitous microchip, former Scripps Director Charles Kennel asked during a Q & A session after the talk. The doubling time in Moore’s Law will lengthen, the Intel co-founder answered. In another decade, the industry’s quest for improvement and the laws of physics will collide, he predicted. Stephen Hawking has said the atomic nature of materials and the speed of light are the law’s only limits, Moore told the audience.

“We’re approaching both,” he added.

 

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