Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Moore's Law at 50: The Performance and Prospects of the Exponential Economy

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Moore's Law at 50: The Performance and Prospects of the Exponential Economy

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Fifty years ago, semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore offered a theory of exponential improvement for electronics. Integrated circuits, he estimated, could get smaller, faster, and cheaper at an astounding rate--doubling in cost performance every one to two years. "Moore's Law" has proven more or less true ever since. Today, however, many think Moore's Law has already run out of steam. Others argue that information technology has become even more efficient and thus dangerously powerful.

The bulk of the evidence suggests information technology has delivered both technically and economically: it has achieved the promise of Moore's Law in both its narrowest sense of transistor scaling and its broadest effect of widespread economic uplift. The effects of Moore's Law are especially evident in information technology (IT), which has provided nearly all the productivity growth in the US economy over the last 40 years. IT has also powered a wave of globalization that has brought two billion people around the world out of material poverty. In short, Moore's Law has been both a chief driver and an exemplar of the American experiment.

Although Moore's Law may not continue to scale using the conventional metrics, such as transistor counts, a variety of innovations in materials, devices, state variables, and parallel architectures will likely combine to deliver continued exponential growth in computation, storage, and communications. Far from reaching an end point, information technology will help transform a number of lagging industries, including health care and education.

This paper examines the technical achievements and economic impact of Moore's Law; the public policies that encouraged rapid innovation in information technology and the way I T, in turn, helped foster greater freedom around the world; and the technical future of Moore's Law and the economic potential of IT.

It was a tangible thing about belief in the future.
                                      --Carver Mead

In 1971, Intel's first microprocessor, the 4004, contained 2,300 transistors, the tiny digital switches that are the chief building blocks of the Information Age. Between 1971 and 1986, Intel sold around one million 4004 chips. Today, an Apple A8 chip, the brains of the iPhone 6 and iPad Air, contains two billion transistors. In just the last three months of 2014, Apple sold 96 million iPhones and iPads. In all, in the fourth quarter of last year, Apple alone put around 30 quintillion (30,000,000,000,000,000,000) transistors into the hands of people around the world. (1)

This rapid scaling of information technology--often referred to as Moore's Law--is the foundation of the digital economy, the Internet, and a revolution in distributed knowledge sweeping the globe. It is also a central factor of US economic, cultural, and military power.

Moore's Law began rather humbly, however. "I was concerned that people thought integrated circuits were very expensive," Gordon Moore recalled, thinking back to 1965. "They were up until that time. The military was the only one that could afford them. There were all kinds of arguments about why this was an expensive technology. But in the laboratory, things were really starting to change. And I wanted to get the idea across that this was going to be the way to make inexpensive electronics....So that was the motivation behind the article." (2)

The article, "Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits," appeared in the 35th anniversary issue of Electronics in April 1965. (3) "Integrated circuits," Moore wrote, "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." Moore was a physical chemist working with a brilliant team of young scientists and engineers at Fairchild Semiconductor, one of Silicon Valley's first semiconductor frms. …

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