moore's law

Some Warn That Moore’s Law Is Cooling Off

photo by Randy Pertiet via Flickr 

As the advancement of the world’s most sophisticated computers grows stagnant, some are warning that we could be nearing the end of Moore’s law.  

For the first time since its inception, Moore’s law, which dictates that the number of transistors in a microprocessor (and consequently the processing power of computers) will both double roughly every two years while decreasing in size, has started showing signs of stagnation.

But are such warnings founded? And if so, what might that mean for technology and our civilization as a whole?

The stagnation

In recent years, when looking at a list of the world’s top ten fastest computers, there’s a noticeable trend–they’re the same devices as last year, and even the year before.

As reported by Wired, in the past three years, the Top 500 list of the world’s fastest supercomputers (which is authored by supercomputing academics from around the world) has been conspicuously absent of new competitors–a trend that also mirrors the bottom rungs of the list.

This is a trend which Jack Dongarra, a longtime contributor to the Top 500 list, says might be attributed to a slowing of Moore’s law.

“Things seem to be slowing down…You might characterize it as maybe a sign that Moore’s Law is having some issues.”

– Jack Dongarra via Wired

Additionally, renowned physicist Michio Kaku has foreshadowed Moore’s imminent stagnation.

Kaku warns that transistors will be stonewalled by the limits of quantum physics and thermodynamics, prompting a paradigm shift in the way we build computers.

The foreseeable future

When it comes to Moore’s Law, physicist Michio Kaku highlights two problems in particular–thermodynamics and “leakage.” What do these two terms mean in regard to Moore’s law? Kaku explains:

    • In regard to thermodynamics – According to Kaku, a major issue in continuing Moore’s law will be overheating. If the processing chips–the most sophisticated of which are currently 14 nanometers in size–continue to shrink, they will not be able to withstand the heat created by their usage. Kaku says the threshold for this is about 5 atoms or about 2 nanometers.
    • In regard to leakage – when dealing with atomic-sized chips, Kaku warns that quantum theory will take over. At this point it will be impossible to know where the electron is–inside the chip, outside the chip, or even outside of the computer itself.

Here is a video of Kaku explaining both concepts and much more:

Specifically, the problems with Moore’s law have much to do with the current class of silicon chips overheating. It was once thought that a chip’s speed could be increased exponentially — that is, until they reached 3 gigahertz and they started to melt. Now scientists are uncertain of what the future may hold.

If silicon chips are indeed becoming outdated, where exactly can computers go next? There are a few new and science fiction-ike possibilities that may plow Moore’s law forward:

Quantum computing

In short, quantum computers (pdf) would use concepts which are now mostly theoretical like entanglement and superposition to exponentially increase the amount of computing power generated by traditional bit-based computing.

DNA computing  

Though still mostly theoretical, our own DNA has been deemed capable of performing calculations which exceed the world’s current fastest computer. Theorists believe that using DNA, computing manufacturers will be able to create biochips, which hold exponentially more data than traditional computers.

Optical computing

In essence, this form of future computing refers to using light (or lasers) instead of electricity. Like DNA and Quantum computing, optical computers will be able to make calculations at the speed of light by replacing wires with optical transistors.

UK startup Optalysys’ domestic grade optical computer is set to be available by January 2015.

The takeaway

While it may be easy to lump the slowing of Moore’s Law into the category of doom and gloom, it probably won’t be the end of innovation as we know it quite yet.

For now, however, many will be watching the progress closely. Some key points to Moore’s stagnation are:

  • Credible minds like Michio Kaku are predicting that Moore’s law could shift in the next 10 years
  • Silicon based chips will run into size constraints, rendering them unusable
  • New computer designs are already on the horizon.
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