Is Moore’s Law ready for membership in AARP?

Sept. 28, 2015

The acceleration predicted by Moore’s Law is slipping, writes John Markoff in “Smaller, Faster, Cheaper, Over: The Future of Computer Chips.” In the New York Times article, which presents the topic for a general audience, he notes that chip speeds stopped increasing almost a decade ago and that new generations of chips will appear only every two and a half to three years. He quotes several technologists on the prospects for Moore’s Law, noting that further improvements through scaling may come to an end in a decade or so.

He quotes Henry Samueli, chief technology officer for Broadcom, as saying of Moore’s Law, “It’s graying, it’s aging. It’s not dead, but you’re going to have to sign Moore’s Law up for AARP.”

The deceleration of Moore’s Law will impact many industries. Markoff quotes former Intel electrical engineer Robert P. Colwell as saying, “Look at automobiles, for example. What has driven their innovations over the past 30 years? Moore’s Law.” Colwell continues, “I think the most fundamental issue is that we are way past the point in the evolution of computers where people auto-buy the next latest and greatest computer chip, with full confidence that it would be better than what they’ve got.”

Markoff takes a look at many of the issues involved, including lithography. He quotes physicist Alan R. Stivers as saying, “I’ve worked on many parts of the semiconductor process. By far, lithography is the hardest.”

Markoff comments on several advancements in lithography, including immersion lithography and multipatterning. He quotes Mentor Graphics CEO Wally Rhines as saying of such techniques, “You are playing tricks on the physics.”

EUV may be the next trick, and Markoff writes that ASML has received an order for EUV steppers from a U.S. company—thought to be Intel. And as I reported earlier, IBM has confirmed it has fabricated a 7-nm test chip using EUV.

Despite advances, Markoff writes, Intel is pushing back the introduction of 10-nm technology until 2017. He quotes Intel CEO Brian Krzanich as saying, “The last two technology transitions have signaled that our cadence is closer to two and a half years than two years.”

Markoff writes that if what physicist Carver Mead has called the “free ride” of Moore’s Law comes to an end, engineers will just have to become more creative. Potential advances include software that can extract more performance from the same number of transistors or, according to Alex Lidow, chief executive of Efficient Power Conversion Corp., the use of optical communications (silicon photonics). Another area of innovation is 3D stacked dies with TSVs, although Markoff doesn’t mention this.

Ultimately, Markoff writes, we may move on to quantum computing and spintronics.

About the Author

Rick Nelson | Contributing Editor

Rick is currently Contributing Technical Editor. He was Executive Editor for EE in 2011-2018. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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