Father of Moore's Law to receive Marconi prize

In its 31-year history, Columbia University's Marconi Foundation has handed out only two Lifetime Achievement Awards. Make that three.

Michael Kanellos
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.
3 min read
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of "Moore's Law," the Marconi Foundation at Columbia University will bestow its Lifetime Achievement Award on Gordon Moore, the law's author and an Intel co-founder.

Moore's Law, which predicts that chips and computers will steadily increase in performance, has been the guiding principle of the electronics industry for the last four decades and has held remarkably steady. Today's computers and cell phones are not only far more powerful than their predecessors, they also cost less to make and are much smaller.

Columbia's Guglielmo Marconi International Fellowship Foundation, named after the radio pioneer and Nobel Prize winner, chose Moore for the award to honor "his innovative contribution to the technology that drives our daily lives, his entrepreneurial spirit and his devotion to the collaborative genius that inspired the genesis and success of Intel."

The Lifetime Achievement Award, to be presented Nov. 4, has been given to only two other people in the foundation's 31-year history. In 2000, the award was presented to mathematician Claude E. Shannon, the founder of modern information theory and inventor of the concept of the bit, and in 2003, to William O. Baker, who, as director of research and later president of Bell Laboratories, oversaw the development of a wide array of technologies that earned Bell's researchers 11 Nobel Prizes during his tenure at the helm. The foundation is perhaps best known for the annual fellowships it bestows, recipients of which have included Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, and author Arthur C. Clarke.

Moore's Law derived from an article in Electronics Magazine that Moore wrote in 1965. At the time, he noted that engineers managed to double the number of transistors on a chip every year, largely by shrinking the size of existing transistors. Adding more transistors allows engineers to increase performance or integrate new functions. It can also reduce power.

Moore updated it in 1975, stating that engineers can double the number of transistors every two years. (Some state the time period as 18 months, but Moore emphatically denies he ever said 18 months). Overall, the process has allowed chip designers to double the performance of the products every 20 months or so.

Moore retired from Intel years ago, but he still delivers speeches at electronics conferences. He also set up a charitable foundation with his wife, Betty, to donate money to educational and environmental causes.

The frantic level of progress, however, has led to unsavory consequences. One is Rock's Law, named after venture capitalist Arthur Rock. This states that the cost of a fabrication facility, now around $3 billion, doubles every four years. It costs more to build a cafeteria in a new building than the fabs of 30 years ago, Intel CEO Craig Barrett has noted.

Power consumption and heat dissipation have also become major problems.

Shrinking silicon transistors is also a finite game. The various components of a transistors--the source, drain and gate oxide, are so small now that they inadvertently leak electricity.

In the next decade, chips containing new types of transistors along with silicon ones will begin to appear. By 2020 or so, these new, unknown structures will likely substantially replace silicon transistors. At that point, the basic themes of Moore's Law will survive but the structures that made it possible will be vanishing.