Moore's Law to conk in 10, 15 years, says Moore

Author of principle that says the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled every two years says it won't last.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--Moore's Law has got time left, but we will hit a wall, said Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

"We have another decade, a decade and a half, before we hit something that is fairly fundamental," he said during a question-and-answer session Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum taking place here.

The problem is that semiconductor manufacturing has become so efficient, and structures inside chips have shrunk so much over the last forty hears, that not much more can be taken out. Intel's 45-nanometer chips, coming out later this year, employ the element hafnium as an insulator.

Intel has been making insulating layers out of other materials. Those insulating layers, however, are now about five molecular layers thick. "You can't go beyond one molecular layer and you can't really (practically) go beyond five molecular layers," he said.

Gordon Moore
Gordon Moore speaks Tuesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

A few years ago, physicist Stephen Hawking appeared in the Bay Area and said that the electronics industry is bounded by two fundamental constraints: the speed of light and the atomic nature of matter. "We're not far from that," Moore said.

Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled every two years. Companies have largely been able to follow this curve by shrinking the size of transistors. Shrinking the size of the transistors makes them cheaper, faster and often more energy-efficient.

The projection that Moore's Law will hit a wall in the 2020s actually matches a research report (first reported here) from the early part of the decade at Intel. However, Moore and others have noted that progress in electronics will still occur if researchers come up with 3D chips, where transistors can be piled on top of each other. Moore also made a projection that Moore's Law would slow down and even top out in other speeches.

Moore also shared some stories about the starting days of Silicon Valley. William Shockley, the transistor pioneer who was also known to be a tyrannical boss, found Moore while searching for a chemist for his new company. Moore applied to work at another company, but that company opened its files to Shockley.

Moore was part of a group of engineers who left Shockley to help found Fairchild Semiconductor. The group was dubbed the Traitorous Eight. "I think Shockley's wife came up with that," he said.

Intel also became a pioneer in using cubicles somewhat randomly. At first, they thought of putting in offices, but it made the building look "like a prison block." Then they thought of doing a mix of offices and cubicles, but it looked stupid. So they went with all cubicles. Although retired, Moore still has the largest cubicle at Intel. It holds a large circular table.

Intel in many ways lucked out in its early days. When it began in 1968, the company chose to work on semiconductor memory. There were three ways to make memory at the time: bipolar circuits, which Texas Instruments and others were doing; multi-chip assemblies, which had practical problems; and silicon gate memory. Intel went with silicon gate.

It was a lucky choice, he admitted. If they had chosen an easier technology, they would have been swamped by established competitors. If harder, Intel would have run out of money.

"We had a monopoly for seven years. That really helped us get established," he said.

In the future, Moore said he expects big things in natural language processing and biology. A smooth Moore's Law-like curve may not emerge for biology, but the rate of innovation is staggering, he said.

He also said that one of the original names for Intel, suggested by co-founder Robert Noyce was Moore-Noyce Electronics. They tried a bunch, but Intel worked. Still, intellectual property issues loomed. The name was owned by a hotel chain in the Midwest. They had to buy it.

On a more sobering note, Moore, who has donated millions to save forests and other nature areas around the world, said that humans are definitely taking a toll on the environment.

"We are the last generation to have any wild places on earth," he said.