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More life in Moore's Law, creator says

Gordon Moore expects that his law, which postulates that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, will slow down a bit but continue to chug along.

Moore's Law, which postulates that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years, will slow down a bit but continue to chug along, said Gordon Moore, the law's namesake and an Intel co-founder.

"The doubling will slow down," Moore said during a telephone interview Tuesday following a ceremony at the White House, at which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.'s highest civilian award. "You really get bit by the fact that the materials are made of atoms."

Nelson Mandela, Placido Domingo, Fred ("Mister") Rogers and others also received the Freedom medal from President Bush on Tuesday.

The ability of semiconductor designers to regularly squeeze more transistors onto a single silicon chip to increase computing performance has largely been the engine fueling the technical and economic growth of the computer industry.

In the future, though, the laws of physics will begin to intervene. Processors now come with features measuring 130 nanometers; next year, chips will sport features measuring 100 nanometers. When these features are shrunk to 30 nanometers--expected in seven to eight years--designers will begin to hit a design wall.

Alternatives to current chipmaking techniques, such as nanotechnology, aren't evolved enough yet to take on silicon. Crafting single transistors is one thing, but "housing a billion of them on a chip is another," Moore said.

Then again, creativity has trumped scientific predictions before. "I remember we didn't think we could go beyond 1 micron because of optical lithography," Moore said, referring to an obstacle overcome in the early '90s. Moore said that although the upcoming barrier looks more fundamental than the earlier one, he's confident designers will come up with a way to have "multibillion-transistor budgets."

Moore on the markets
Silicon Valley's woes will continue for some time, Moore predicted.

"It is absolutely true that the telecom business right now is just flat on its tail...We haven't seen a large resurgence in PCs either," Moore said.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom wasn't Moore's first White House ceremony. Twelve years ago, he received the National Medal of Technology from the first President Bush.

"Same room, different Bush," Moore quipped.

Moore founded Intel with Robert Noyce in 1968 and served as its CEO from 1975 to 1987. Since 1997, he has served as Chairman Emeritus of the company.

While working for Fairchild Semiconductor in 1965, he coined the now famous Moore's Law as he was preparing an article for Electronics magazine. At that time, the law stated that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year. In 1975, he amended it to say it doubles every two years.

But not all of Moore's thoughts on technology have been as on the mark.

"If you asked me in 1980, I would have missed the PC. I didn't see much future for it," Moore said last August at a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the PC. "I thought automobiles would be a bigger market (for microprocessors). But the IBM PC kind of hit it off with the public."

Moore didn't buy a home PC until the 386 processor came out, toward the late 1980s, he said.