50 years ago today, Electronics magazine published an article by Gordon Moore, the director of R&D at Fairchild Semiconductor, titled “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits”. It started with some bold predictions:
The future of integrated electronics is the future of electronics itself. The advantages of integration will bring about a proliferation of electronics, pushing this science into many new areas. Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers—or at least terminals connected to a central computer—automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today.
While people were still chuckling at the prospect of an electronic wristwatch – and a cartoon of people buying computers at the drug store – Moore, a newly minted PhD from CalTech, made a far more technical prediction, but one that has become famous:
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 ten years.
10 years passed and Moore’s Law – as the prediction came to be called – remained roughly true, and another 10 and another. The doubling time has been variously recalculated as 18 months or two years, and the scope was broadened from not just “complexity” (by which Moore meant the number of transistors on a single chip), but also microprocessor price, memory capacity, quality of sensors, even the number of pixels in digital cameras
Now, 50 years later, the Law continues to hold. The phone in my pocket, which I got for $200, has 125,000 times as much memory as the computer I bought for $2500 ($7,120 in 2015 dollars) when I went to college. Moore himself, now 86, was recently quoted as saying that he thought his Law would only stand for another decade or so.
But of course, that is what he said back in 1965 too.
My daughter is 17 years old. When she is my age, will she carry a digital device 125,000 times as powerful as a base-level iPhone? Or will the idea of “carrying” a phone be as quaint in that day – with its subcutaneous terminals and direct neural links – as a land-line is in ours?
I don’t know and neither does Dr. Moore. He’s retired now, chairman emeritus of the company he founded, Intel Corporation. He has given most of his money away to charity and lives on the $6.7 billion he has left. The Law has done wonders for all of us.