Although many believe the future of the computing industry lies with building chips out of carbon nanotubes or other novel materials, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicts it won’t be easy to replace silicon.
“I will admit to being a skeptic to these things for replacing digital silicon,” he told a gathering of reporters here Wednesday, where he also discussed artificial intelligence, Intel’s future, and the early days of Silicon Valley. “We’ve got a cumulative couple of hundred billion dollars invested in R&D.”
Although he retired several years ago, Moore will be a very visible figure during the next few months. April 19 will mark the 40th anniversary of an article he wrote for Electronics Magazine that first sketched out the idea of Moore’s Law. The observation, which predicts that engineers can double the number of transistors on a chip every 24 months, has been the fundamental principle of the computing industry and paved the way for making computers and cell phones that are cheaper, faster and more powerful.
“It was a chance to look at what happened up to that time,” he said of the original article. “I didn’t think it would be especially accurate.”
While he says he isn’t up on the latest technological nuances, his skepticism about novel materials replacing silicon derives from practicality. Modern-day microprocessors contain hundreds of millions of transistors, and soon will have billions, and, to break even, manufacturers have to pop out millions of these complex devices. Although researchers have been able to produce individual nanotube transistors, the ability to mass produce hasn’t been shown.
Still, continuing to produce chips on silicon has its problems too. Designers have been able to put more transistors on chips for decades by shrinking the size of the transistors, but they are now at the point where some structures inside chips are only a few atoms thick.
“Any material made of atoms has a fundamental limit,” Moore said. The solution? Make the chips bigger. Carbon nanotubes, he added, wouldn’t be completely left out. They could be used to replace the metal interconnects between the transistors.
Rereading the article 40 years later yielded some surprises, he admitted. For one thing, he noticed that he predicted home computers.