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Moore’s Law has proven itself time and time again since it was first introduced. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted back in 1965 that the computing power on a microchip (the number of transistors that would fit on the chip) would scale quickly, roughly doubling every year or so. He predicted that this rate of scaling would last at least 10 years—instead, it’s continued to hold true for about 50. It’s because of these advancements in computer power that we enjoy all the thin and powerful devices we have today, as well as astonishing advances in artificial intelligence and genetics. So what’s next? Will Moore’s law continue to remain relevant, or will new technology take over and bring us the next big advancement in computing?
Our Microchips Today
Looking at the state of microchips today, it’s clear that change is in the air. That era of massive computing power growth with smaller transistors seems to be coming to a close.
According to Henry Samueli, the CTO of Broadcom:
“It’s not dead, but you’re going to have to sign Moore’s Law up for AARP.”
Intel itself has admitted that it’s becoming more expensive to create even smaller transistors and that the scaling rate will likely drop to doubling about once every 2.5 years. Eventually, transistors may become so small that they will be completely unstable, bumping up against the laws of physics. So how small are microchips now that they’re reaching the limits of Moore’s Law and the universe itself?
Well, let’s put it into perspective. In 1965, one transistor was the width of a cotton fibre, costing about $8 apiece, and only a few could fit on each chip. Today, billions of transistors fit on a single chip the size of a fingernail—and each transistor is only made up of a few molecules (tens of thousands of nanometers smaller than a human hair), costing a tiny fraction of a cent apiece to produce.
The Limits of Today’s Microchip Technology
The limits of physics are what’s really slowing down Moore’s Law. You simply can’t go much smaller than what’s available today by relying on the materials, chip design, and manufacturing techniques companies have been using for decades. While most of us don’t need anywhere near the kind of power high-end microchips currently offer us, advances in fields like artificial intelligence and self-driving cars will require more computing power and the advances can’t stop here. It’s not enough to “trick” physics, as some manufacturers have done to get to this point. There will need to be other types of technology advancements in order for us to continue making progress.
Cloud Computing and Other Innovations
With this reality ahead of us, what’s next for computers and software? Slowing down isn’t an option—which is why many companies and innovative minds are focused on other solutions to the problem of bumping into the laws of physics, like cloud computing and powerful software.
Cloud computing has taken off in the last few years for both personal and commercial use, expanding virtually every industry from finance to education to even radiology technologies. Software as a service (SaaS) companies that run software on the cloud make up a huge number of the new companies emerging out of Silicon Valley, and other businesses are beginning to use the cloud to store their data. Software is quickly changing over to the cloud, with packaged software accounting for fewer and fewer sales each year (eventually, it is expected to make up just 10% of software sales overall in 2020). Globally, revenue from public cloud services alone is expected to climb to $167 billion in 2020.
This shift to cloud computing takes some of the pressure off computer chips themselves. Instead, they use the resources of the cloud to complete some tasks that used to be dependent on the chip processing power. New advances in “deep learning” which mimics the human brain could also be used to maximize power without the need for more advanced chips. Even new software is creating more computing power, automating code writing to make computers more efficient.
Driving Creating Solutions
Cloud computing and software innovations may be growing quickly, but the slowdown in microchip progress doesn’t mean that Intel and other innovative companies have given up on microchips—they’re just having to think of more creative solutions. Manufacturing techniques are in the works that could make components even smaller, allowing the industry to squeeze even more production out of existing materials. Changes in chip design could be one way to increase computing power without adding more transistors. Advancements in software could also help to leverage this computing power without needing to change the chips themselves. However, Intel is also looking at other materials that could potentially be used to create the microchips of the future. Some chips are going in a different direction altogether: looking to reduce power consumption and eventually be used in devices without batteries, relying on energy sources like solar power instead, making them extremely versatile and portable.
If the technology advancements of the 20th and 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that what once seemed impossible can absolutely become reality. That old saying “necessity is the mother of invention” may be true—we’re reaching an unsustainable point in microchip scaling and we’ll have to use our uniquely human strengths of ingenuity, curiosity, and creativity to reach new heights in computing power.