Moore’s Law and the Mobile Revolution

We don’t often delve into pop culture on this blog, but I want you to think of two very different shows that, when juxtaposed, provide an incredible look at the way technology shapes society. On one end, you have the great period drama, Mad Men, set in the tumultuous 60s. An interesting (and underutilized) subplot involves the show’s marketing firm acquisition of a computer. This computer took up a whole room and drove one of the copywriters literally mad, but was used as a selling point for SCDP. The new computer was a minor part of the season, but it hinted largely at the future.

On the other end of the spectrum lies the raucous, tech-savvy Silicon Valley, the pitch-perfect HBO satire about modern-day tech, capitalism, and the weirdness that accompanies any co-mingling of the two. This show embodies the future that Mad Men only hints at. The two shows couldn’t be more different, so much so, that they seem as if they take place in different worlds. But there is one man that bridges the gap between them; one of the men who made the Valley what it is, and whose eponymous prophecy has dictated our mobile computing and mobile revolution. That man is Gordon Moore. This week, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Moore’s law.

moore's law
The chip that created the mobile revolution; smaller and more powerful every year. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Predicting the Future of Power

On April 19th, 1965, an engineer named Gordon Moore, the semi-conductor Director of Research and Development at Fairchild’s, published an article sketching out the future of computing power. In Moore’s article, he looked at the last six years of processing, concluding that the amount of transistors that could fit onto a chip would double every 12 months. He effectively predicted our current technology arch by claiming that advances in technology and our ability to make increasingly space-efficient components would allow computers to become faster and more powerful. A decade later, after his vision had come true, he revised his estimate slightly, saying that power would double every two years.

“Moore’s Law,” isn’t an order or an edict, though you would be forgiven for thinking so. After all, Gordon Moore went on to co-found Intel, thereby helping to make the computer world what it is today. Since he was one of the visionaries that created Silicon Valley, one could think that his word was actually law. But it was more of a prophecy. More accurately, it was a keen insight into what the future would bring.

Moore's Law insights
The rate of processing power follows Moore’s Law almost exactly. Image from Wikimedia Commons

What the future would bring were speed and power. This conclusion wasn’t merely academic; doubling in power might not sound like much, until you start to do the math. Doubling once a year, or every two years (ok, we’re not actually going to do the math because you wouldn’t believe it). If you kept at it, though, you’d see an exponential increase that leads to where we are today: the chip powering the iPhone 6 contains approximately two billion transistors. If you can’t wrap your head around that, consider this: transistors today are 90,000 times more efficient and 60,000 times cheaper than they were in 1971. These are numbers we don’t see anywhere else, and they’ve made the technological world what it is today.

The End of Moore’s Law and the Future of Mobile

Of course, this growth can’t last forever. As mind-blowing as these numbers are, they are still constrained by the physical realities of the universe. Exponential growth can only go so far. As The Economist article linked to above says, it is getting too expensive to keep shrinking transistors, and they expect it to peter out by 2025 (which still indicates a remarkable run).

However, all is not lost. For one thing, we actually see an acceleration of Moore’s Law in mobile, as this great Readwrite article by Matt Asay shows. Beyond that, cloud computing continues to experience exponential growth. After all, if you can all work in the cloud, and are not bound entirely by the physical limitations of your machines, you can work faster, and be more powerful, even if the number of transistors on your device hasn’t changed.

That’s why it is too early to write off Moore’s Law. Our computers and mobile devices are going to grow even more interconnected, increasingly relying on each other (and the Internet of Things) to create a shared source of power. We can keep growing faster, and accomplishing more. Whether we do any good with it or not is up to us. Let’s hope a TV show 20 years from now finds a reverse Moore’s Law to satire.

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