'Moore's Law under fire again,' again and again

Yet another article about Moore's Law.

My friend Jerry Pournelle calls Unix the full-employment act for computer wizards (presumably a reference to the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978).

Similarly, I regard Moore's Law as the full-employment act for computer pundits. I've written about it several times myself (e.g. here and here); the phrase gets 930,000 hits on Google today.

One of the duties of any publication in the computer industry is to cast periodic doubt on the future reliability of Moore's Law, thus keeping the phrase prominent in the public perception. EDN Magazine discharged its duty for this year with great aplomb by publishing this piece last week.

You'll note this article says that this is "the first time" there's been such doubt. Never mind; they always say that.

The first time I heard that the sky was falling--excuse me, that Moore's Law was being threatened--was as the industry began to consider how to make chips with line widths below one micron (a millionth of a meter). That milestone was passed easily, and a while later we sailed past the quarter-micron mark, and now we're making chips with line widths a quarter of that--65 nm (nanometers, a billionth of a meter).

So now, right on schedule, doubt is being cast on our ability to reach the 15nm generation, which represents another four-fold linear reduction.

An experienced cynical analyst such as myself ought to just ignore this pronouncement, recognizing it for the latest iteration of a tradition that, after all, keeps guys like me in business.

But this time...I dunno, this time it seems more real.

In the past, the answer has always been the same: just draw thinner lines. This reveals new problems, which industry chemists and physicists have always solved in plenty of time.

But physics only goes so far. A 15nm-wide line in silicon is only about 30 atoms across. I'm willing to believe that a 30-atom-wide line will be stable enough. But how much smaller than that can we get?

Even if Moore's Law is safe this time around, the next four-fold reduction could well be impossible. And if that's when Moore's Law runs out--in silicon, at least--what am I going to write about then?

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