Tech

45 Years Later, Does Moore's Law Still Hold True?

A die shot of an Intel CPU, codenamed "Sandy Bridge," which promised the biggest-ever leap in processing power.  (Intel)

Intel has packed just shy of a billion transistors into the 216 square millimeters of silicon that compose its latest chip, each one far, far thinner than a sliver of human hair.

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But this mind-blowing feat of engineering doesn't really surprise us, right? After all, that's just Moore's Law in action … isn't it?

In 1965, an article in "Electronics" magazine by Gordon Moore, the future founder of chip juggernaut Intel, predicted that computer processing power would double roughly every 18 months. Or maybe he said 12 months. Or was it 24 months? Actually, nowhere in the article did Moore actually spell out that famous declaration, nor does the word "law" even appear in the article at all.

Yet the idea has proved remarkably resilient over time, entering the public zeitgeist and lodging hold like a tick on dog -- or maybe a stubborn computer virus you just can't eradicate. But does it hold true? Strangely, that seems to depend more than anything on who you ask.

"Yes, it still matters, and yes we're still tracking it," said Mark Bohr, Intel senior fellow and director of process architecture and integration. The company is certainly one reason Moore's Law has remained in the public's mind: A section on Intel's website details the law, explaining that "his prediction, popularly known as Moore's Law, states that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every two years. Intel has kept that pace for over 40 years, providing more functions on a chip at significantly lower cost per function."

Bohr told FoxNews.com that doubling the number of chips is far less important these days than making them smaller, which has other tangible benefits for consumers. 

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"The true benefit is to reduce the transistor size, because when they're smaller, you improve performance, reduce the power use, and you reduce the cost," he explained. 

While no one questions the innovations Intel, AMD and other companies have brought to computers through their infinitesimally small transistors -- a human red blood cell is about 4,000 nanometers in diameter, 125 times larger than the smallest parts in Intel's new chips -- many industry experts are less certain that Moore's so-called law is really an accurate representation of the industry.

"Moore’s law isn’t tracking exactly, but the spirit of the law is still alive in that the dies are still shrinking, and CPUs become more and more capable every 12-18 months or so," said Joel Santo Domingo, lead analyst, desktops at PCMag.com. His former boss agrees. 

"I did the math, and while it’s not exactly doubling every two years, it’s pretty close," agreed Michael Miller, the award-winning math geek and former editor in chief of PCMag.com.  

Maybe, as Johnny Depp said in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it's really more of guideline?

"Semiconductor chips haven't actually tracked the progress predicted by Moore's law for many years," said Tom Halfhill, the well respected chip analyst with industry bible the Microprocessor Report.  

Halfhill is quick to note that Moore's law isn't truly a scientific law, merely "an astute observation." In fact, since Gordon Moore made his observation in '65, the law has been modified and manipulated to fit the actual progress of semiconductors to such an extent that it can arguably be said to have predicted nothing.

It's also been so frequently misused that Halfhill was forced to define Moron's Law, which states that "the number of ignorant references to Moore's Law doubles every 12 months."

Halfhill wrote a paper for "The Microprocessor Report," published in December of 2004, which debunked the connection between Moore's Law and reality. In it, he noted that Moore's Law was more like Bode's law, an observation by early astronomers that each planet in our solar system is roughly twice as far from the sun as the planet in the next inner orbit.

"Modern astronomers don't expect the distances between planets to add up exactly, and they don’t expect other solar systems to conform to the same rules," Halfhill explained. Likewise, engineers don't really require the latest generation of computer chips to exactly meet Moore's Law either. 

In fact, to make it track more closely to actual transistor counts, he proposed Epstein's amendment, named after a fellow editor at "The Microprocessor Report," which adds a leveling factor that accounts for the law of diminishing returns.

Halfhill is quick to point out that the Law is meaningless -- but the idea that computing keeps relentlessly advancing, that's what's really important. "Whether it's exactly as fast as Moore predicted isn't really relevant. No one's holding him to the numbers," Halfhill told FoxNews.com. What's more important is that innovation continues. And at the end of the day, if the law drives innovation, and we end up with faster PCs, who cares whether Gordon Moore was right 45 years ago?

"Moore law is almost whatever you want to make it mean. And as long as chips keep getting faster, that's good enough for most people. "

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