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Welcome to the era of radical innovation

Why the end of Moore's Law may be a good thing for innovation

January 7, 2014 06:45 AM ET

Computerworld - Moore's Law created a stable era for technology, and now that era is nearing its end. But it may be a blessing to say goodbye to a rule that has driven the semiconductor industry since the 1960s.

Imagine if farmers could go year to year knowing in advance the amount of rainfall they would get. They could plant crops based on expected water availability.

That's the world that device makers, who are gathering this week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), have long been living in, and every year has been a good one. Droughts haven't been part of the forecast, yet.

The tech industry has been able to develop products knowing the future of processing power, meaning device makers could draw up product road maps based on microprocessor performance gains that could be reliably anticipated.

In sum, the technology industry has been coasting along on steady, predictable performance gains.

But stability and predictability are also the ingredients of complacency and inertia. At this stage, Moore's Law may be more analogous to golden handcuffs than to innovation.

Technology innovation, particularly in the past decade, has been "a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages," wrote Robert Gordon, an economist, in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that addressed the question of whether U.S. economic growth is over.

Moore's Law, first described by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, states that the number of transistors on a chip would double approximately every two years. But the law was never meant to hold true indefinitely, and today microprocessors are reaching a point where they can shrink no more.

The 14-nanometer silicon chips that are now heading to mobile phones and elsewhere may eventually reach 7nm or even 5nm, but that may be it.

When the European Commission looked at the changing landscape in high-performance computing and the coming end of Moore's Law, it saw opportunity. No longer will "mere extrapolation" of existing technologies provide what is needed, but, instead, there will be a need for "radical innovation in many computing technologies," it said in a report this year.

And in a recent budget request, the U.S. National Science Foundation said that radical innovation beyond Moore's Law will require "new scientific, mathematical, engineering, and conceptual frameworks."

The NSF sees a need for new materials that can work in quantum states, or even "molecular-based approaches including biologically inspired systems."

That new technology could be carbon digital circuits made of nanotubes, which could perform 10 times better than today's technologies, as rated by metric that considers both performance and energy usage. A nanotube is a rolled-up sheet of graphene.

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