News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Is Moore’s Law Dead? Not a Chance


For the first time in a long time, the increase in desktop CPU speeds appears to be flat. Is this the beginning of the end for Moore’s Law? Does this put to rest the theory of a technological singularity?

Gordon E. Moore, who co-founded Intel, observed that the complexity of components on a chip was doubling roughly every one to two years, while the cost remained the same or decreased. Although the speed of the microchip in a desktop computer has risen very slowly over the past year, complexity continues to rise at an exponential rate. The microchips in cell phones, portable computers, and the chips used in home electronics and cars, are all experiencing rapid advancement. And in supercomputing, this progress continues at a breakneck pace. Researchers are finding new ways to combine multiple chips into supercomputers that simulate weather, astrophysical phenomena, and quantum mechanics.

Meanwhile, the networking revolution continues, as these supercomputers are beginning to merge into various computing grids around the world. Grids share data and computing resources across multiple computers and over various distances, so that all the computers on a grid perform together like one gigantic supercomputer.

So what is happening with the desktop computer? Modern CPUs get hot, and they suck up a lot of juice. To combat these issues, the major chipmakers, including IBM, Intel, and AMD, are transitioning to dual-core CPUs. This allows better management of heat and energy usage. Experts expect the future of the CPU to be multi-cored, with real gains coming when each core focuses on a particular duty. Although the new CPUs don’t run at exactly two times the speed of each core, future versions and future application upgrades should result in noticeable performance gains.

Exponential and double exponential growth curves are used as evidence that a technological singularity is coming in the next few decades, but these graphs are simplifications of the processes at work. For example, Damien Broderick uses an exponential growth curve to depict the history of progress in human transportation in his 2001 book The Spike. The speed at which we travel has increased exponential through foot transportation, horses, cars, planes, and rockets. This graph does not show the transitions that occurred when humans began using new types of transportation. Use of older transportation generally hits a plateau at some point, prior to a new transportation type that suddenly begins to experience exponential growth. When all these mini graphs are plotted together, the primary exponential growth curve in the progress of transportation technology is revealed.

Desktop CPU speeds could return to an exponential pattern at any time. On the other hand, there are a multitude of other technologies on the horizon that could replace the traditional silicon microchip. Each new advance in technology experiences its own exponential growth curve followed by a plateau in usage, but the overall exponential graph of computer advancement continues unabated into our future.

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