What happens to Oregon’s tech sector now that electronics have become as small as they can get.
To anyone who has browsed the computer aisle at Best Buy, it’s hard to ignore the endless upgrading of high-tech electronics. Phones and computers that were considered cutting-edge last year are now on discount, obsoleted by newer, faster, more efficient machinery.
Consider the iPhone: Since its release in 2007, there have been more than 20 new models, each one quicker, more efficient and with more features than the last.
For consumers, keeping up with the endless cycle of next-generation electronics can be dizzying. It’s easy to wonder why higher-end electronics are replaced so rapidly. It’s certainly not the same for other products — prescription drugs, for example, don’t knock each other off the shelves year after year.
If you ask an engineer, they might answer you with two words: Moore’s Law.
It began with a simple observation. In 1965 Gordon Moore — later to become the CEO of Intel, one of the world’s largest makers of microchips — wrote a paper on microchips in which he noted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubled every year. That is to say, the individual parts that made up the chip became smaller and more numerous at an exponential rate.
A decade later, Moore revised his initial assessment, stating that the number of transistors doubled about every two years. The observation became known as Moore’s Law and mostly held up over the next several decades.
For Oregon, the rapid evolution of electronics spurred on by Moore’s Law has been a gift. More than 11% of all wages come from the tech sector. Technology employers that make up the state’s “Silicon Forest” were the driving force behind Oregon’s recovery from the Great Recession, providing 10% of all job gains between 2009 and 2013.
But there are signs Moore’s Law could be losing steam. In 2015 former Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the rate of doubling had slowed to two and a half years instead of two.
In 2016 the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors released a research and development plan that, for the first time in its history, was not centered on Moore’s Law.
Ironically, one of the law’s most vocal doomsayers has been none other than Gordon Moore himself, who said in a 2015 interview with IEEE Spectrum he expected his eponymous law to fizzle out over time.
What does it mean if Moore’s Law is not long for this world? And what does it mean for Oregon, where so many incomes are depend on the tech sector? Stagnation could mean these well-paid jobs matriculate across the Pacific, where a less-skilled workforce could get the job done just as easily.
So why the slowdown? Cyrus C.M. Mody, engineering professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and author of The Long Arm of Moore's Law: Microelectronics and American Science, has a rather blunt answer. “Transistors now are just really, really small. Some of these components are only made up of a few atoms. Physically, we are reaching a limit.”
Not only are designers bumping up against a physical limit, tiny transistors are beginning to cause problems. “These tiny parts are generating an excessive amount of heat and making waste disposal increasingly difficult.”
According to Mody, at some point Moore’s Law became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t that the biannual doubling of components was the best design; simply that it was profitable and expected to occur.
“At some point, [Moore’s Law] became an industry standard rather than a measure of progress,” Mody says. “Moore’s Law only survived because some very wealthy, very powerful people wanted to keep it going.”
For tech-sector innovators, reaching the limit could mean more opportunity. Keeping up with Moore’s Law left little room for electronics to advance in other areas. Instead of designing a microchip with the most transistors, Oregon’s talent-rich tech startups could be free to innovate in other areas, such as designing greener, more standardized microchips, or putting microchips to use in different ways.
A brave new world of electronics could level Oregon’s tech-sector playing field, leaving giants like Intel on the same footing as smaller developers.
According to Ted Brekken, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Oregon State University, the end of Moore’s Law could breathe life into Oregon’s sustainability sector.
“We can start by updating the smart grid,” he says, referring to a responsive electrical grid designed to optimize energy efficiency. “You could have microchips in your appliances at home be responsive to the grid [to maximize] proficiency of the energy consumed.”
Instead of focusing on Moore’s Law, Brekken believes new realities should take the limelight. “There’s not going to be enough renewable fuel in the next decade. And that’s as serious as a heart attack.”
If a greener future is indeed the next chapter of the tech industry, then Oregon is uniquely well poised. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found Oregon has a higher percentage of its workforce invested in clean-energy technology than any other state in the country.
Mike Mayberry, chief technology officer, Intel Corporation Photo credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel
Does transistor tininess mean Moore’s principle will end altogether? Not so fast, says Mike Mayberry, chief technology officer at Intel. “Rumors of the death of Moore’s Law have been greatly exaggerated,” he says, noting that the transistor observation was only one part of Moore’s original paper.
“The key element of [Moore’s Law] was not the specific technology details but rather the observation that there is an economic benefit of continued scaling — not only for cost reduction but because there will always be more things people want in their technology. If people stopped buying electronics, Moore’s Law would have ended a long time ago.”
From that perspective, Moore’s Law isn’t only about transistors but rather the public’s demand for state-of-the-art electronics. Mayberry is confident Moore’s Law will survive and thrive in the coming years, no matter what development problems it may bump into.
“I don’t believe in the sun setting on Moore’s Law. I believe it will look different than it has in the past,” says Mayberry. At one point in time, making smaller and smaller components was most economical, but size is only one element of innovation, he says. “We’ve been adding new materials, whether it be a new camera sensor or a different kind of memory. We’re building things up in layers and will continue to do more of that going forward.”
Even if the next generation of circuit doesn’t have twice as many transistors as the last, features and information density can still go further. According to Mayberry, “Moore’s Law only ends when innovation ends.”
Still, if scaling has gone as far as it can for the time being, the question remains as to what this new era means for Oregon.
“It means there are fewer of us on the leading edge, so those of us on the leading edge need to invest more money,” says Mayberry, whose company employs more than 20,000 Oregonians. “Keeping Moore’s Law going is one of the drivers behind [Intel’s Oregon campus], so we’ll continue to invest. This is the place where we will begin a new advance node, and fan out manufacturing in other places.”
The future of Moore’s Law could be a matter of perception, depending on whether one considers it an antiquated industry standard or a manifesto surging technology forward. The question then becomes whether Moore’s Law is ending or simply evolving. One thing is clear, however: Tiny transistors won’t stumble the tech sector.
No matter how one regards Moore’s Law, these new limitations are a challenge, not a calamity. You’ll still likely be in awe the next time you stroll down the electronics aisle. Moore’s Law or not, innovators will continue finding ways to dazzle.
To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.