It began quietly, with a 1965 article in Electronics magazine. But as if following Moore’s Law itself—the prediction that states that the number of transistors that could fit on a single silicon chip would double approximately every two years—the concepts in that article grew quickly, exponentially, in import and influence.
Gordon Moore (PhD ’54) started that article, titled “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits,” with other predictions that are equally—and almost spookily—accurate today. “The future of integrated electronics,” he wrote, “is the future of electronics itself. The advantages of integration will bring about a proliferation of electronics, pushing this science into many new areas. Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers—or at least terminals connected to a central computer—automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today. But the biggest potential lies in the production of large systems.”
This year, as Moore’s Law turned 50, many people turned to look at what it has meant for not just the computer industry, but for our world. In May, the New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman talked about the Law with Gordon Moore himself, at San Francisco’s Exploratorium at an event hosted by Intel (the company Moore co-founded in 1968) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
During that interview, Moore spoke of the Electronics article and the birth of his law, saying, “I had no idea that it was going to turn out to be a relatively precise prediction, but I knew that the general trend was in that direction.” When asked if he was surprised by how long Moore’s Law has lasted, Moore replied, “Oh, I’m amazed. The original prediction was to look at ten years, which I thought was a stretch. This was going from about 60 elements on an integrated circuit, to 60,000—a thousandfold extrapolation over ten years.
I thought that was pretty wild. The fact that something similar is going on for 50 years is truly amazing.” At Caltech’s 121st Commencement ceremonies, cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell—who is, most notably, a vice president at Intel and an Intel Fellow—spoke about the wider impact of Moore’s Law. Her address to the graduates, which follows in part, put into context its human, as well as its technological, import technologies. Nor were there things like Facebook, YikYak and selfie sticks. There was the integrated circuited and a man named Gordon Moore. He graduated from here with a PhD in Chemistry (and a minor in physics). So this is your history as well as your legacy.
In 1965, a popular trade magazine approached Dr. Moore and asked him to speculate about the future of his industry. Looking back over a decade of rapid transformation, he predicted that integrated circuits, the building blocks of contemporary computing, would enjoy an unprecedented rate of growth. He wrote that the number of transistors on a densely integrated circuit would double every year for the next decade. Basically integrated circuits would continue to get more and more powerful on a knowable rate. It was a bold statement of engineering, and 50 years on, this observation has continued to predict the rate of technological improvement. It is quite remarkable, and in and of itself worthy of celebration! Yet in some ways it is as much a promise about the state of the future as it is a Law. After all it is not a law describing the natural world, but rather a way we have chosen to configure it. It is, in effect, a promise of a world that will be better with every passing year.
It is a promise of room to grow and room to imagine, of continuous innovation. In his original article, Dr Moore also articulated why this innovation was important. For him it wasn’t just technology for technology’s sake. He wrote, and I want to quote here, “Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers–or at least terminal connected to a central computer–automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communication equipment. The electronic watch only needs a display to be feasible today.” Again, think about it. How many things do we hear today that we imagine will actually be true in fifty years? Can you say with such assurance what the wonders of 2065 might be? I am fairly certain I cannot. Dr. Moore didn’t stop with simply imagining that world, instead he took a bold step we still recognize today.
He and his colleagues Robert Noyce and Andy Grove left the company at which they were working, Fairchild Semiconductor, and started their own company—an original Silicon Valley start-up. They conceived a big idea and founded Intel on it. Silicon Valley grew up out of this idea and out of the computing power it unleashed, so did many other technology centers and many other companies. In fact, we have all grown up in the world of wonders it spawned. Every time you send an email, post a photo, flirt long distance, skype, send a remittance payment, use a hashtag to participate in a debate, back a political candidate and then hate all the emails they send you later, worry at the venom in the comments sections, fund someone’s great idea, binge on another season of Game of Thrones or House of Cards, buy something on Amazon, or share that video with the cat in a shark suit on a robotic vacuum cleaner being chased by a duck, you are living in the world that Dr. Moore and all his contemporaries built for us. They gave us 50 years of technological innovation and change.
Genevieve Bell’s commencement address: