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Life After Silicon:

The Age of the Cup-holder

By Shlomo Maital


   Most of us are blithely unaware of how much we owe to a law – Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, which says in simple language that every 12 months or so, the number of transistors in a given area doubles. In a 1965 paper, Moore used 4 or 5 data points to show that this had happened up to 1965, and he said it would continue for the foreseeable future.

   And it did..and how!  We now carry more computer power in a chip barely 3 sq. mm. than the 1976 room-size supercomputer designed and built by a genius, Seymour Cray.

     But what if Moore’s Law is about to be repealed? What if the future ends? As Francis Fukuyama wrote, in 1992, we are at “the end of history”;    are we at the end of the history of silicon?

     Yesterday I heard a brilliant lecture on this subject by Prof. Mark Horowitz, on Innovation in a Post-Moore’s Law World. Horowitz is a former Chair of Electrical Engineering at Stanford and is visiting my university, Technion. He delivered the annual Hershel Rich Lecture.

     Here are some of his key points:

* As we move down from IBM’s path-breaking one micron chip in 1974, to today’s 20 nanometer chips, 50 times smaller, we have reached the limit of Moore’s Law, mainly because the heat generated by these tiny powerful microprocessors is very hard to dissipate. Cooling limits further transistor doublings.   Mathematically:   “computing power” = energy per operation   x     operations per second. If we want to boost ‘operations per second’, we need to lower ‘energy per operation’..and we’re reaching the limit on that one.

* Result?   “In future, success will no longer be about technology development. It will be about finding the right applications of the existing technology”.  

     In other words: We have loads of computing power. Now we need to find ways to adapt it to create value.   The so-called Internet of Things is misleading. There is no “internet of things”.   It is in fact a broad collection of devices, and each device needs its own application, its own software, its own microprocessors, to enhance its value.  

   Horowitz noted that ITRS (International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors) has for years done roadmap predictions of future technology, based on Moore’s Law. They have now stopped. No more roadmaps.   The end of history.

     What does this mean for entrepreneurs and innovators?   In future, there will be a huge premium for IT engineers who understand the technology, but who also have deep sensitive knowledge of business, customers, preferences and markets. Only this will enable us to have life after silicon. I think every engineering school should have a required course on Startup Entrepreneurship.   Silicon will no longer be a rapid-growth industry, it will become like steel and plastics, notes Prof. Horowitz — big, but stable.

     Sure, there may be a huge technological breakthrough. But Horowitz notes, it is unlikely, because developing it will take enormous resources, more than governments can afford, and more than private investors are willing to risk.  

     Prof. Horowitz has a powerful metaphor. In future, he noted, successful products will include many “cup-holders”.   A cup-holder is a place to put your coffee or soda, in a minivan or car. German carmakers started the idea. Today some vans have 16 or 17 such cup-holders. They are low-cost, and are highly appreciated, because they show the car-maker is aware of, concerned about, the lifestyle of drivers.

     Innovator: Can you use existing computer power, to create small low-cost add-ons (incremental innovation) that create great value?   Apparently, this will be our innovation lives – after Moore’s Law expires.

Beyond Moore’s Law: Vacuum Tubes?

By Shlomo Maital

  vacuum tube

Vacuum tube

   Sometimes, you can innovate by going back to the future. Take, for instance, the transistor. They are getting ever smaller, and more and more of them are packed into a microprocessor.   Semiconductor companies like Intel now work in 10 to 20 nanometer dimensions (a DNA strand is about 2.5 nanometers).   Below 10 nanometers, who knows how silicon will behave?  At those dimensions, it starts to emit light and becomes very flexible.

   Almost half a century ago, Intel founder Gordon Moore stated his famous law, that the number of transistors that could be etched into silicon wafers would double every 18 months or so. This has held true, remarkably. But it seems we are approaching the limit of Moore’s Law. The smaller transistors get, the more they leak electrons. This causes wasted power (up to half the power consumed by microprocessors is lost when electrons leak), and generates a lot of heat, which in turn requires massive cooling.

     Dr. Axel Scherer, a Caltech scientist, is working on a solution. He and two students have gone back to the vacuum tube. Vacuum tubes (“valves” in Britain) are devices that control electric currents between electrodes in an evacuated container;   electrons are emitted from a hot filament or a cathode heated by the filament. They are big, clunky and creating the vacuum is costly. But Scherer creates tiny tubes of metal, able to turn flows of electrons on and off between four very tiny probes. What is neat about this is that you do not need to use silicon, and the very ‘leakage’ of electrons that bedevils tiny transistors actually is the basis of the nano-vacuum tube substitute for transistors.    It reminds me of Dov Frohman’s invention of flash memory.  He was asked to solve a problem of stray electrons on the surface of silicon microprocessors, solved it, but realized you could make use of those electrons, as a way to store information.  Flash memory is now ubiquitous. 

   Could these tiny vacuum tubes help us keep Moore’s Law in business? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, think about other old technologies that can be adapted to create massive value in new ways.

   Source:   “Shrinking computer chips, thanks to grandma’s radio tubes”. NYT, John Markoff, Monday June 6, 2016

The End of Moore’s Law?  Why It Matters

By Shlomo Maital  


In 1965 the (later) co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, published a scientific paper, in which he made the following claim:   “Over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.”   This was quite amazing, because integrated circuits were very new and there was not much history of ‘computing hardware’.   And how right he proved. (See the diagram).  In 1971,  around when Intel was born, there were 2,300 transistors on a single chip.  Today?  With 10-core microprocessors,  there are some 2.6 billion!   That is almost exactly 21 doublings, in the 43 years since 1971.  How in the world did Gordon Moore know???

   This powerful exponential curve,  which presumes a 42 per cent annual compounded rate of growth (of the number of transistors on a chip), has completely changed our lives,  placing a cell phone device in our hands that has the power of a major computer.  It has placed chips into cars, refrigerators, and nearly everything.  It has greatly reduced the price of electronic devices, because the same exponential curve that expands the number of transistors per microprocessor, also lowers exponentially (negative exponential) the cost, very rapidly.

     In “Tapeout”, the magazine of the Israeli semiconductor industry, the latest issue asks whether Moore’s Law is about to “exit” (R.I.P., die, stop)?    In a sense it already has.  Intel’s 10 core microprocessor is impressive (basically 10 microprocessors in one) but the truth is, many of those ‘cores’ do not operate at any given moment.  Intel simply shifted its marketing from “hey, count the megahertz” to “hey, count the number of cores”. 

   However, if microprocessor technology truly does ‘hit the wall’, like a marathon runner, and a limit to packing transistors onto a chip is reached,  then an entire industry will be in crisis.  It will have to find a new technology, to restore the exponential growth, on which profits and revenue are built.  And shifting to an entirely new silicon technology – perhaps chips based on cell biology? —  will be expensive, risky, difficult and will lead to a major shakeout in the industry, as small disruptive startups rise to the fore to replace big lumbering established firms. 

    In “Tape-out”, the experts are divided about the alleged end of Moore’s Law.  After all, its ‘end’, demise, has been predicted now for decades.  But as the technology approaches and passes 10 nanometers, it may be true that a physical limit is being reached.  

   Watch the semiconductor industry closely.  Repeal of Moore’s Law will affect all of us, in so many ways. 

   “Moore’s law” is the observation that, over the. The observation is named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, who described the trend in his 1965 paper. His prediction has proven to be accurate, in part because the law now is used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.[4] The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore’s law: quality-adjusted microprocessor prices,[5] memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.[6] All of these are improving at roughly exponential rates as well

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital