When I first discovered Moore’s law in 1983, I realized I could use it as one of my tools to accurately predict the future of technological change. At the time, few were paying much attention to Moore’s law. Over the decades, the press has declared the death of Moore’s law, usually stating that it is impossible for scientists to make processors smaller and more powerful at the same exponential rate. This news usually comes from a tech conference where industry executives share their frustration in going to the next level. We have recently seen major news reports of this kind. I am always reminded of a great quote: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Although that iconic remark attributed to Mark Twain is, in reality, a misquotation, it does aptly summarize the recent “rebirth” of Moore’s law.
But to my mind, the purported phoenix like rise from the ashes of one of technology’s best-known principles really misses the mark so far as anticipatory thinking is concerned. We need to be asking more pertinent questions and looking at bigger issues that command greater attention.
Moore’s Law Revisited
At the risk of explaining a concept that’s already widely understood, Moore’s law—named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor—deals with processing power, the speed at which a machine can perform a particular task. In 1965, Moore published a paper in which he observed that, between 1958 and 1965, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had doubled every 18 to 24 months. At the same time, Moore noted, the price of those integrated circuits dropped by half.
Although the formula held true for some 50 years, critics have been quick to point to possible death knells over the past several years. In effect, they argue that a transistor can only be made more powerful and smaller as chips inevitably keep getting more expensive to produce.
Whenever I hear this type of prediction, I write an article reminding us all that using the word “impossible” is a bet against human creativity and ingenuity and they will be wrong. Case in point, last year IBM proved them all wrong by doing the impossible and introducing a new chipset, keeping Moore’s law going, and Intel just did it again by recently unveiling its long-anticipated Cannonlake chipset. The Intel chips are a mere 10 nanometers, down from 14 nanometers used in currently available chips.
The product debut, announced Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, underscored the reality that Moore’s law was still, in fact, alive, well and “flourishing,” as Krzanich put it.
Great News! But…
The fact that Intel’s announcement, at the very least, waters down the obituaries for Moore’s law, is certainly good news. The fact that processing chips can continue to be manufactured to increasingly stringent specifications bodes well for anyone who uses technology in some capacity (meaning all of us).
But I also feel very strongly that it keeps us from seeing the bigger picture. Instead, we need to be asking better questions, because the factors encompassed by Moore’s law simply no longer matter as much as they once did. We depend less on advances in chip technology because of the exponential growth of the capabilities of the overall ecosystem of which chips, bandwidth and digital storage are merely one part.
Here’s one way to look at it. Not very long ago, a laptop was largely a stand-alone device, as its storage and processing power derived solely from its chips.
Not anymore. For one thing, we now use a smart phone or tablet to access supercomputers in the cloud, allowing us to go far beyond the processing power of the individual chips in our devices. That’s how we can use powerful tools such as Apple’s Siri, the Amazon Echo and Google Home to tap into the capabilities of the world’s supercomputers with just a few spoken words.
Looked at another way, in the recent past, we all relied on the power of the chips in our devices, but today we have the computing power of the world in our pockets or on top of a table, and it isn’t limited as it once was to the chips inside a device.
All this boils down to the fact that, despite Moore’s law’s focus on the processing speed of the chip, computing power is no longer limited to the computational “brute strength” of the individual device. It’s more specialized, meaning that overall computing power will continue to improve as functions such as distributed computing, digital storage, advanced bandwidth, wired and wireless, and network processing are more equitably spread out over an ecosystem of computing power.
It also comes down to looking past the surface when seemingly central issues are raised. In this case, whether Moore’s law is dead and buried or alive and kicking is, in many ways, less relevant when compared with other advances in technology and structure. And it begs the question: What issues and developments are you and your organization examining at a deeper level to identify game-changing insights and opportunities? Are we all paying sufficient attention to the transformational advances in the whole technology ecosystem, or needlessly focusing on just one or two elements?
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