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CES 2019: Moore's Law is dead, says Nvidia's CEO

The long-held notion that the processing power of computers increases exponentially every couple of years has hit its limit, according to Jensen Huang.

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Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang shows off the new RTX 2060 graphics card at an event at CES 2019. 

James Martin/CNET

RIP Moore's Law. You had a good run. 

At least that's what Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang believes. The executive, who co-founded graphics-chip maker Nvidia, on Wednesday declared that "Moore's Law isn't possible anymore."

A key part of semiconductor manufacturing is shrinking the components called transistors, the extraordinarily tiny electronic switches that process data for everything from the clocks in microwave ovens to the artificial intelligence algorithms running in our phones

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Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 predicted a steady, two-year cadence of chip improvements that would double a processor's performance every couple of years. Moore's Law became more than a guideline for computer processor manufacturing. It's instead evolved into a shorthand definition for innovation at regular intervals, and has become a self-fulfilling prophecy driving the tech industry. Those regular improvements in iPhones, Samsung Galaxy smartphones and various other devices are thanks to Moore's Law. 

But as the scale of chip components gets closer and closer to that of individual atoms, it's gotten harder to keep up the pace of Moore's Law. It's now more expensive and more technically difficult to double the number of transistors -- and thus the processing power -- for a given chip every two years. 

"Moore's Law used to grow at 10x every five years [and] 100x every 10 years," Huang said during a Q&A panel with a small group of reporters and analysts at CES 2019. "Right now Moore's Law is growing a few percent every year. Every 10 years maybe only 2s. ... So Moore's Law has finished."

This isn't the first time Huang has declared Moore's Law to be over. He's made similar comments over the past couple of years. 

Intel, for its part, doesn't think Moore's Law is dead. Companies are just finding new ways to keep it going, like Intel's new 3D chip stacking. The manufacturing technology it calls Foveros stacks different chip elements directly on top of each other, a move that should dramatically increase performance and the range of chips Intel can profitably sell.

"Elements of this debate have been going on since the early 2000s," Intel Chief Technology Officer Michael Mayberry said in an EETimes post in August. "Meanwhile, technologists ignore the debate and keep making progress."

The worry for the technology industry is that once semiconductor advancements slow down, so too will overall electronics innovation. It's the shrinking of processors that improves battery life, lowers costs and boosts performance of devices. 

Semiconductor struggles

Intel, which long was the leader in semiconductor manufacturing, has repeatedly delayed its move to 10 nanometers, while other companies, like Samsung, are shipping more advanced 7nm chips. Though some, like Huang, have declared Moore's Law to be over, materials scientists continue to find ways of stretching today's silicon transistor technology even as they dig into alternatives. (For instance, super thin sheets of carbon graphene.)

"Moore's Law, by the strictest definition of doubling chip densities every two years, isn't happening anymore," Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said. "If we stop shrinking chips, it will be catastrophic to every tech industry."

But he noted that the industry is embracing other kinds of computing using GPUs (which Nvidia makes), advanced software frameworks and tools, and new ways of packaging the chip circuitry. 

MediaTek Financial Chief David Ku, meanwhile, said he wouldn't call Moore's Law dead but noted that it's slowing down. MediaTek, a Taiwanese company that makes mobile chips, is currently on 7nm chips, and it will soon be working on 5nm, Ku said. 

"We still see a lot of benefits of [lower] power consumption," he said in an interview at CES. "But probably we don't get as much of the cost savings as we got in the past." Ku noted that the chip expense may even rise a bit as the manufacturing process requires more complex equipment like EUV lithography machines. 

"Even with [Moore's Law] slowing down, that doesn't mean [it's going to] stop," Ku said. 

Originally published on Jan. 9 at 11:46 a.m. PT
Update at 5:23 p.m. PT with comments from MediaTek.
Update at 12:20 p.m PT on Jan. 16 with Intel comments.

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