Four and Half Years On

Moore is more

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous axiom states that the number of transistors you can fit on a chip will double every two years. Now, I expect you are familiar with the grains of rice on a chessboard image which is often used to explain the staggering rise that occurs when a number is doubled in series – a geometric progression leading to exponential growth. In case you aren’t I’ll just run over it again so that you get some idea of the monumental meaning of Moore’s Law.

Rice n Easy

The story goes that an Emperor (or a Rajah) many, many years ago declared that if someone could invent a game which ruled out the element of luck he would grant them any wish. A brilliant sage devised the game of chess which (so long as each player gets an equal number of goes at playing white) is indeed wholly a game of skill. The delighted ruler demanded of the sage that he name his reward.

“Simply this,” said the sage, “I should be pleased if, on the board that I have designed for this game, one of your servants could place a grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on until the last square is reached.”

The emperor clapped his hands delightedly and called for a sack of rice – what a let off!

Ah, but do the maths, or ‘math’ as Americans like to call it. A chess board is eight squares by eight, and 8 x 8 = 64. By the time you have reached the 21st square, doubling as you go, you will have to put down over a million grains on it, by the 32nd, which is only half way, you’re planking down 2 billion grains, just on that square.

By the end the number has rocketed to more grains of rice than any kingdom could grow. On the 64th square alone there would be 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains. When the Emperor’s CFO and senior number crunchers had told him how much he owed, the story goes that he had the sage’s head cut off as a warning to smartarses everywhere. Other versions of the tale say he made him his new vizier. Viziers are like Prime Ministers, only less stupid.

Moore’s Law was first propounded in 1970, which has allowed for 21 iterations of the principle since then, which tells us that more than a million transistors can be fitted into the space that held one in 1970. That number will double in 2014. And double again in 2016.

Enter a fine man

Is there an end in sight? One of my great heroes was Richard Feynman. He was everybody’s great hero if they love science and especially perhaps if like me they are too stupid to understand it without the help of a great communicator, a passionate and brilliant advocate. But of course Feynman was a hero to scientists too, a Nobel Prize winner, a teacher of astonishing brilliance and possessed of an exuberant and acute mind that ranged freely over all the great questions.

Physical limits

In 1985 he gave a startling lecture in Japan on the size limitation of future computers. Later he gave a series of talks at Caltech, the university at which he had done most of his work, also on the subject of the physical limitations of computing, but raising too the possibility of what is now called “quantum computing.”

This was not the first time he had caused a paradigm shift in the way people thought about science and engineering. As early as 1960 he had astonished an audience by predicting and describing what we now call nanotechnology. On that occasion he offered a prize for anyone who could make a working electric motor no bigger than one sixty-fourth of a cubic inch (roughly .4 mm3). He offered another prize for anyone who could take the information from the page of a book and reduce it down to an area 1/25000 smaller “in such a manner that it can be read by an electronic scanning microscope”. The scale he was demanding was equivalent to being able to read the whole of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin.

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This blog was posted in Techblog

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