Will the End of Moore’s Law Signal the End of the Digital Age?

Will the End of Moore’s Law Signal the End of the Digital Age?

Back in 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that the speed of semiconductors would double on a regular timeframe.  This prediction came to be known as “Moore’s Law”, and is now part of the lore of Silicon Valley.  Even more, the assumption that Moore’s Law will remain true for the foreseeable future continues to drive the expected pace of innovation.

Yet that assumption is increasingly under scrutiny.  The pace of change under Moore’s Law started slowing as early as the mid-1990s.  More recently, there has been talk about the impending end of Moore’s Law.  As the physical limits of microchips start to impinge on the space available for switches, many believe that a reckoning is on the horizon.

The recognized limits of physics and chip area are a known issue, and manufacturers have spent the better part of the last two decades searching for a solution.  Research into carbon tubes, extreme ultraviolet technology, and quantum computing all hold promise that Moore’s Law could continue beyond the limits of current silicon chips.  None of these paths are certain to pan out. And even if they work on a technical level, there’s a possibility that production costs would be high enough to prevent the advent of a commercially viable solution.  Moore’s Law is predicated on the cost of processing just as much as how fast that processing takes place.

What if it doesn’t work out?  If Moore’s Law ends, the assumptions of the technology sector will have to be dramatically altered. The belief that innovation will continue at the current pace is unlikely to hold if the core capabilities of processors suddenly peak. The go-go days of the digital age would logically come to a close, or at least slow to a point where breakthroughs would be far less predictable than they appear to be today.  This would be a jarring cultural shift for technology enthusiasts around the world.

Consumer behavior is also based on Moore’s Law.  If the product cycle of ever-increasing speeds and ever-decreasing component costs no longer holds true, consumer behavior will also have to adjust.  For the past forty years or more, it has been a solid assumption that in five years (or less), the computer/tablet/phone you purchase today will be obsolete.  The end of Moore’s Law may change that assumption.

All of this could lead to a significant shift in the economics of technology.  To a certain extent, the dramatic rise of the technology sector as a part of the economy has been driven by Moore’s Law.  Constantly rising computing power allows for planned obsolescence – the ultimate goal of any product manager.  When product cycles become longer, the growth of the technology sector would naturally slow down as well.

It’s tempting to cast the end of Moore’s Law as a disaster on the horizon.  But that may not be true either.  It could well be argued that we don’t make use of all the computing power we already have.  Or that by forcing ourselves to use computing power more efficiently, the pace of innovation could still continue.  Businesses have always adjusted to the reality of their markets – technology will ultimately be forced to do it, too.

Is your business prepared for the end of Moore’s Law?