Silicon Valley historian Michael S. Malone, author of the 2014 book The Intel Trinity, explores what Moore’s Law means to younger generations as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gordon Moore’s observation, which has governed the increasing pace of technology innovation in our lives.
Moore’s Law essentially states that the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Gordon Moore set out to graph the rapid rate of improvement in semiconductor chip performance…and ended up discovering the heartbeat of the modern world. It’s an accelerating rhythm that generations of digital natives feel without knowing its source.
What Moore first illustrated in an April 19, 1965 article in Electronics magazine didn’t become known as “Moore’s Law” until a decade later. It remained a topic of interest mostly inside the semiconductor industry until the late 1980s, when implications of the law began to spread into the rest of the electronics industry. By the beginning of the 21st century, the impact of Moore’s Law hit everyday discourse, as we saw how technology help land a man on the Moon or how personal computers have become a critical tool for learning and career building.
Moore’s Law has followed this extraordinary trajectory not because of novelty, fad or promotion but because it has proven to be the most effective predictive tool — of new chip generations, technology innovation and even social and cultural changes — of the last half-century.
It has accomplished this in the face of disbelief, doubts about its durability even by Moore himself. No, it isn’t really a scientific law, but more like a social contract between the chip industry and the world economy.
Still, against all odds and regular predictions of its imminent demise, Moore’s Law endures, driving advancements in art and sciences, as well as new human experiences such as augmented or virtual reality. Some might say reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated, because it continues marching onward. It’s historic doubling of chip performance every eighteen months may have slowed by half, but even pessimists now accept that we likely will live under its regime well into the next decade and beyond.
If recent breakthroughs in atomic-level transistors, nanotechnology and biological computers prove fruitful, Moore’s Law could continue to dictate the pace of technology innovation for decades to come. Perhaps a thousand years from now, our time will remembered for its stunning efflorescence of innovation and entrepreneurship. Moore’s Law may well become known as Moore’s Era.
These predictions have enormous implications for the generation — so-called millennials — just now entering the workforce. Several generations have never known a world not defined by Moore’s Law. Social networks and smartphones are mere utilities to millennials, who seem more fascinated by drones, robots and 3D printing without understanding how these technologies are tightly bound to Moore’s Law.
Millennials may be largely unaware or uninterested in the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, but their future will depend on it more than any previous generation. Their careers will rise and fall on how well they ride the curve of an equation devised during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration.
What a ride that curve will be. The doubling pace of Moore’s Law has always been brutal; it can be blamed for much of the 90-plus percent mortality rate of electronics companies. Yet it can be credited for presenting the next great biannual wave of entrepreneurial opportunities.
While many people were in awe with social networks, smartphones and the 2008 global banking crisis, a new generation of digital natives is growing up unaware of the multi-trillion dollar revolution in semiconductors, computers, communications and the internet, all of which happened over the past four decades. During this time, Moore’s Law impacted, even transformed industries that now require millennials to be highly educated, quick and flexible thinkers, able to handle complexity and fast-changing competition never seen before.
You can already see the tools and platforms for this new competition beginning to emerge. Peter Diamandis and Salim Ismael recently wrote a pair of books describing ‘exponential organizations,’ near future workplaces that will grow 10 times as fast as today’s hottest companies.
They will do so by becoming almost purely virtual, jettisoning everything — product research, design, manufacturing, marketing and a sales force — that creates operational drag. Instead, these once traditional in-house tasks will contracted out, performed at non-company sites, or turned over to the customers themselves.
It will take a keen ability to adapt in order keep up with Moore’s Law as it accelerates to hyper-speed.
Crowd-sharing, crowd-funding, bitcoin, micro-venture funding, cloud computing and big data all have been early attempts, with varying success, at embracing the next phase of Moore’s Law, the quickening of the metronome.
As always, this new pace will permeate the larger culture. Moore’s Law has always induced de-massification: giant mainframe computers become smart watches, while huge, vertically-integrated organizations get defeated by smaller armies of Davids.
Today, rigid command-and-control structures are often being replaced by adaptive and short-lived alliances and confederacies in an increasingly competitive world of “frenemies.” This process will attack every corner of society, turning the future into a truly uncharted territory.
Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has already challenged the value of a college education, and Khan Academy, among other on-line universities, offers an alternative. Hospitals are losing their walls to a revolution in personal health monitoring. Even the human brain will be challenged by artificial intelligence, which is continuously improving thanks to the persistent pace of Moore’s Law.
Because of Moore’s Law, everything is now in play. Millennials face one of the greatest opportunities any generation has ever known: to completely remake the world in which they live. Given that Moore’s Law could end in their lifetime, millennials will have to fight harder than their predecessors to keep Moore’s Law alive and working in their favor.
The good news is that younger generations seem to be already, even if unconsciously, preparing for this challenge as their attention pours more deeply into robotics competitions, Maker Faires, drone design and other forms of tech apprenticeship.
Having lived their entire lives at the pace of Moore’s Law, they seem to sense that the time has come to hit the accelerator. If millennials don’t entirely get it yet, they soon will: they exist in a special moment in history — and it is due to one soft-spoken man with an adamantine commitment to scientific truth as destiny.
It wasn’t just that Gordon Moore first formulated the law (indeed, others like Doug Engelbart and Moore’s own partner Robert Noyce had already spotted the same dynamic), it was that Moore also went on to co-found Intel and enforce the law’s competitive pace onto the entire semiconductor industry — and from there onto the world.
For the immense opportunity he has given them, today’s millennials should take a moment to comprehend what drove Moore to constantly outdo his best with something better. It’s a drive that millennials already have inside them, and likely so will the next generations.
This article was contributed by Michael S. Malone.
Editor’s note: This video shows John Breseke, director of manufacturing IT at Intel. “It’s the most sophisticated manufacturing process in the world, and it probably the most automated manufacturing process,” said Breseke, referring to the way Intel mass produces computer chips that are designed with state of the art transistors and circuitry. He describes what it like inside an Intel fab.