Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The End is Near

In today's New York Times, John Markoff reports on the impending end of Moore's Law. It's a well-written story, but it's one that could have been told--and has been--many times before.

For example, there's nothing wrong with this statement:

"Increasingly, transistor manufacturers grapple with subatomic effects, like the tendency for electrons to "leak" across material boundaries. The leaking electrons make it more difficult to know when a transistor is in an on or off state, the information that makes electronic computing possible. They have also led to excess heat, the bane of the fastest computer chips."

Except that we were saying much the same thing a decade ago. (For example, see this paper of mine from 2000. Sorry the formatting is a little bizarre.) The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which is the industry's formal embodiment of Moore's Law, has been seriously evaluating possible successors for a decade as well.

It's nice to see IBM's Frances Ross featured in the story. She's a wonderful, imaginative scientist, whom I knew when she spent some time at Bell Labs. But she did make a goof here.

When we were preparing to announce our Vertical Replacement Gate transistor to the world in 1999 (we did an exclusive with the same John Markoff), Jack Hergenrother and I took some training in dealing with the media. It was a very interesting session, and one message was "never predict when the work will be commercially available." It has financial implications, and it's too easy to get wrong.

Frances is quoted (indirectly) making exactly that sort of prediction about the silicon nanowires she's growing in her electron microscope: "this technology…could be available commercially by 2012, she said."

Maybe IBM is seriously committed to this, but I suspect that if that projection were true, it wouldn't be coming from a fundamental researcher. More likely, the technology IBM is going to use for their chips in 2012 is already in serious development and making large circuits, not in a research lab. All the intervening time will be needed to get the bugs out of the process and make sure the devices can be made by the billions.

My suspicion is heightened by a later statement that "techniques must be developed to make them behave like semiconductors." That seems kind of important.

Actually, I think nanowires made of traditional semiconductors are quite interesting, not as flashy but perhaps more practical that carbon nanotubes. But commercialization in 2012 sounds kind of silly, at least for full-scale integrated circuits.

The one thing it's safe to say is that we're ten years closer to the end of Moore's Law than we were a decade ago. We have a slightly longer laundry list of candidates to take over, but no obvious path for getting them to the enormous scale of circuit needed to take on silicon. In 1998, I suggested that the alternatives might sneak in by taking a low-performance, disruptive path, but silicon just kept getting better (although clock speeds did max out). Exponentials being what they are, Moore's Law will have to end, and it's hard to imagine it going 20 more years, if that.

But the really interesting question of how it ends, and what, if anything, comes next, is still wide open.

No comments:

Post a Comment