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Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 07:50 GMT
Meeting the man behind Moore's Law
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Gordon Moore
Dr Moore has now helped found several companies
In April 1965 a 36-year old electronics buff jotted down his thoughts on the future of the juvenile silicon chip industry.

Writing in a "throw-away" journal, Gordon Moore accurately imagined a future filled with mobile phones, home computers, and even intelligent cars.

But it was a much more prosaic prediction that has come to dominate his life and the industry that he helped found.

"I could see a change coming that the electronics were going to get significantly cheaper," says the co-founder of Intel, the largest maker of computer chips.

In the article in Electronics Magazine, he predicted that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every year for ten years.

He later revised the forecast to doubling every two years or so, as the initial breakneck speed of development and shrinkage waned. It was a prediction that became known as Moore's Law and it has helped drive the computer revolution over the last four decades.

Modest growth

At first glance it is not the kind of observation that would catapult a person to fame.

But the day I meet him, a now silver haired Dr Moore has just given a talk to a packed auditorium of people and he is surrounded by crowds of autograph hunters who were not even born when he made his off the cuff observations.

Moore's Law has become shorthand for the pace of technological change. It set a standard for the chip industry's phenomenal growth and has in turn underpinned the world's digital awakening.

Transistor graphic
Transistors are basic electronic switches found in silicon chips
Each transistor can be switched on or off, representing a "1" or "0", known as binary code
All computation is done using different combinations of these two outputs to do calculations
The number of transistors on a chip determine its speed
Modern chips contain millions of transistors allowing them to execute millions of calculations per second
The tiny devices consist of a source, drain and gate
A voltage applied to the gate and drain turns the device on
Removing the gate voltage switches it off again

"It was an exciting technology in the beginning. It had so much potential, we just had no idea how much potential," he says.

"When Intel was formed [in 1968] the total semiconductor industry was only a couple of billion dollars worldwide - today it is 300 billion."

And as the industry has delivered each successive generation of faster, smaller, cheaper chips, it has opened up rafts of new possibilities for silicon that have ultimately delivered the technologies he predicted more than 40 years ago.

Reflecting on his prophesies today, a retired and quietly-spoken Dr Moore is characteristically modest.

"When I went back and read that I was amazed that I predicted all of those things," he says.

But, as a young engineer, he was at least uniquely placed to make his key observation, having co-founded Fairchild Semiconductors, maker of the first commercial integrated circuit, or chip.

"I was directing a lab where we were trying to advance the technology and from my perspective I could see some of these things coming that weren't generally visible to the rest of the population," he says.

Force for change

At the time, computers were mainly used by the military and PCs were unheard of, he says.

"Computers were in glass rooms tended to by a core of monks that knew how to do the proper incantations."

Moore's Law graph

But as the silicon chip industry took hold and computer makers learnt how to exploit the technology everything changed.

"Shortly after that the commercial market just completely dwarfed anything in the military," he says.

And what had originally been just a prediction by Dr Moore became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"It has become a driving force for the industry," he says. "Competitors have realised that if they don't move at least that rate they are going to fall behind."

So far silicon producers have managed to keep on or ahead of the curve for more than four decades by continually shrinking the technology and packing more and more components inside a chip.

The number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years
First outlined by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel
Published in Electronics Magazine on 19 April, 1965

"It's a peculiar feature of this technology that by making things smaller everything gets better," says Dr Moore. "The transistors get faster, you can put more of a system on a chip."

But more importantly, and perhaps more curiously, the chips also become cheaper.

And this is the key point of his 1965 paper, he says. Moore's Law is an economic law and would probably have driven the industry regardless of whether or not he had made his prediction.

"I am not sure that having Moore's Law held up there as a yardstick increases the pressure [on chip manufacturers] because the need to remain competitive is so strong."

Chip future

As a result, the industry has grown "far beyond" what he could have imagined in 1965, he says.

Gordon Moore laughing

"It is surprising that any of the things we predicted are still valid."

He is most impressed with the industry's inventiveness, he says, allowing it to overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable technical hurdles as it grew.

"The industry has succeeded in getting around all of the ones that have been thrown in front of it," he says. "It has been much more successful than I probably would have predicted."

But, Dr Moore says, the industry can only go on shrinking transistors for so long.

Eventually, the features will become so small that the atomic structure of the materials will be a limitation, possibly spelling the end of Moore's Law

So what does he think will happen in the next 40 years?

"I'm through with making predictions," he chuckles. "Get it right once and quit."

Moore's Law Graph


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