Gordon E. Moore: The Semiconductor Prophet

The insights in Gordon Moore’s world-famous paper, Cramming more components onto integrated circuits, have been validated again and again in the decades since its publication.

Upon reading the paper, many startlingly accurate statements are likely to jump out at you. Startlingly accurate that is - because the date of original publication was April 1965.

Here are some of the prophetic insights that leaped out at me:

He says that memory may be distributed throughout the machine rather than concentrated in a single unit. My primary experience with this phenomenon is in the construction of personal computers. Today’s PCs have hard disks, RAM, and CPU cache in order of increasing speed and decreasing size. Additionally, specialized devices such as video cards are increasingly being fitted with their own RAM and even sometimes flash memory. Memory accessibility has proven to be one of the salient difficulties of computer design. Spreading the memory around has made even faster operations possible.

He accurately predicted that semiconductor integrated circuits will come to dominate electronics. The rise of the PC age is a good indication of this domination. Today we are beginning to see semiconductor integrated circuits in pretty much anything that has electric power flowing through it.

His ‘day of reckoning’ thing sounds a lot like the frequency wall that we hit in the early 2000’s. Since the early 2000’s, clock frequencies in mainstream computers have not increased. Today, our top CPU manufacturers focus on improving performance per clock cycle and per watt of power.

He says that we may find it more economical to build larger systems out of smaller functions. Look at our multi-core personal computers, computer clusters, cell computers, and cloud computing. As a consequence of the frequency wall and economics, today’s supercomputers are dominated by multicore and multiprocessor systems. In the last few years we have also been watching the rise of the cloud computing system. Using the power of the Internet, staggeringly huge supercomputers are created out of smaller cells linked to each other through the network. We have only just scratched the surface of how cloud computing is going to change the face of our computing world.

Lastly, this is the piece in which Moore first described the economic relationship that would come to be known as Moore’s Law. His observations are often misquoted and misinterpreted in popular media. He identified a definite trend in the cost of production of integrated circuit components and the number of components per integrated circuit. This has been extrapolated by later thinkers into a plethora of versions of “Moore’s Law” that are claimed to be representative. The accuracy of the later versions is highly questionable. However, Moore’s actual prediction has been remarkably accurate for over four decades.

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