2020: The visible end of exponential innovation

Moore's law has had an incredible run of 50 years, but the end is in sight. It won't be physics that stops it...

It won't be physics that sets the limits of Moore's law, but fiscal issues — as the chip industry's platform of exponential innovation grinds to a halt after a 50-year run in the face of mounting costs around 2020.

Then it'll be up to software to take over in doubling computing power and halving costs every two or so years. Good luck with that. 

Rik Myslewski at The Register reported from the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University:

"When Moore's law ends, it will be economics that stops it, not physics," declared Robert Colwell of DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office. "Follow the money," he advised.

According to Colwell, who was Intel's chief chip architect from 1990 to 2001 and an Intel Fellow, there's absolutely no doubt that Moore's law will eventually be repealed. "Let's at least face the fact that [Moore's law] is an exponential, and there cannot be an exponential that doesn't end," he said. "You can't have it."

Colwell believes that 2020 will be the earliest date for the law's demise. "That's only seven years away," he reminded his audience. "We'll play all the little tricks that we didn't get around to" — but the halcyon days of exponential performance improvements will be at an end. And with them, Moore's law.

He raises an interesting point about the incremental improvements in chip performance following the end of Moore's law. Will people buy a chip that's 50 percent better, 20 percent better, 10 percent?

If customers won't buy smaller improvements, then chipmakers won't make the chips. Chipmakers won't invest billions of dollars in new manufacturing lines if the performance improvements are incremental.

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