A well-known theoretical physicist has taken direct aim at a key theory in the computer industry, saying Moore's Law is collapsing.
Physicist Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York, said in a videotaped interview on BigThink.com 'that time is running out on the 47-year-old law. And that could affect the evolution of the computer processor.
"In about 10 years or so, we will see the collapse of Moore's Law," Kaku said. "In fact, we already see a slowing down of Moore's Law. Computing power simply cannot maintain its rapid exponential rise using standard silicon technology."
The prediction was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965. It holds that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years and can be done inexpensively.
Kaku, like so many scientists before him, said recently the two main problems that will derail Moore's Law are heat and leakage. "That's the reason why the age of silicon will eventually come to a close," he said.
This is far from the first prediction that Moore's Law is failing.
For years, various scientists and industry analysts have been predicting the demise of this law. But for years, researchers have been pushing ahead, advancing chip structure and components and keeping Moore's Law alive.
For instance, in the fall of 2008, researchers at Montreal's McGill University reported that they had discovered a new state of matter that could greatly extend Moore's Law.
The university researchers, using temperatures 100 times colder than intergalactic space, found a quasi-three-dimensional electron crystal that could enable them to harness quantum physics to make increasingly smaller computer chips.
And in December of last year, scientific teams from McGill University and Sandia National Laboratories reported that they had built one of the smallest electronic circuits, paving the way for smaller and more powerful mobile devices. Industry analysts were quick to note that this kind of discovery could extend Moore's Law.
What's beyond silicon? Dr. Michio Kaku says, "if I were to put money on the table I would say that in the next 10 years as Moore's Law slows down, we will tweak it."
Kaku said in the video interview that scientists should be able to tweak silicon components enough to keep Moore's Law going for several more years. But after exhausting technology, like three-dimensional (3D) chips, they will reach their limits.
"Every 'death of Moore's Law' rumor for the past 20 years has had very good supporting data, but the tech industry has somehow found a way to keep the pace going," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Strategies & Insight. "But as we reach the molecular level of chip design and manufacturing, it does get more expensive and difficult to keep the pace going."
Scientists, though, are working to keep the evolution moving at Moore's predicted pace.
One research subject is photonics, or data sent via light instead of copper interconnects. And there are 3D components and hybrid CPU/GPU systems. Moving beyond silicon, scientists are focusing on quantum computing and molecular computers.
However, Kaku said molecular computers hold promise but he sees "enormous problems" with quantum computing and doesn't expect it to really mature until the late 21st century.
"Researchers are constantly exploring how to design and develop new materials that can deliver higher performance at reasonable cost," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "We see these advances dribble into the market here and there. A good example of this is Intel's Tri-Gate Transistor, which increases the contact area of the transistor and provides about a 30% performance boost while using less power."
Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, said Moore's Law may be running its course but he's not worried about how that will affect the evolution of the computer industry.
"You could argue that the concept is heading toward a collision with the intractable barriers of physics," King said. "At the end of the day, the vast majority of laws fundamentally reflect their time and place and inevitably become inconsequential as times change."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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