Fifty years ago this week, Gordon Moore predicted that integrated circuits on silicon semiconductors would grow at a sustained exponential rate, or in layman's terms: The processing power of computers will double every two years. His prediction was right on the money. What he did not predict was the equally profound effect semiconductor technology would have on the global economy.
In 1965, Moore's hypothesis of exponential growth was dismissed as farfetched. Yet transistor speed has progressed at almost exactly the speed that Moore claimed it would. In 1975, when semiconductors held about 8,000 chips, Moore predicted that by the 2010s the rate would have doubled 20 times. Today, the most advanced semiconductor on the market fits approximately 4.3 billion circuits onto a semiconductor, growth of a factor of two to the 19th power. This is why over the past 40 years, processing speeds have increased over 1 millionfold.
Fueled by belief in innovation, Moore's law became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Firms expected computing power to grow at an incredible rate and so relentlessly pursued how to improve speeds before competitors figured it out first. Indeed, the research, design, risk-taking and hard work behind Moore's law created a potent innovation ecosystem characterized by rapidly changing technologies, a focus on research and development, and a culture of innovation and creative disruption.
This process has put devices in our pockets with more computational power than the fastest computer in the world in 1990. And that has unleashed a wave of innovation across industries including not just information technology (IT), but life sciences, energy, aerospace and services, thus playing a transformational role in driving the global economy and improving quality of life for citizens around the world. Indeed, semiconductors (i.e., integrated circuits) constitute the bedrock technology for the entire IT industry, and annually support an ancillary $1 trillion in electronics-based products — everything from mobile phones and automobiles to medical devices.
Yet possibly within the next five years, the dominant silicon-based complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) architecture will likely hit physical limits that threaten to compromise Moore's law unless a leap can be made to radically new semiconductor chip architectures. This is in fact one of the most critical technology issues the world faces today, because without significant investment in research, it's likely that Moore's law will stop long before the next-generation processing technologies are available at commercial scale and affordable prices. If so, the negative consequences would be enormous, for new needed innovations in robotics, intelligent machines, data analytics and defense technology all require Moore's law's progress to continue.
Thus, foundational innovation in semiconductor electronics will be needed in both the public and private sector to insure computing power continues to advance and promote our future digital economy. Companies such as Applied Materials, IBM, Intel, Micron and Texas Instruments have invested billions in next-generation semiconductor technologies and equipment, but they can't do it all themselves, especially in terms of funding risky, early-stage research. U.S. government funding of fundamental scientific research has been instrumental to U.S. leadership in semiconductor technologies, and continued, robust investment is needed now more than ever because of the urgent need to push beyond CMOS with research into new chip architectures spintronics, other advanced technologies based on nanotechnology, and quantum computing. Put simply, sustained and expanded federal funding of long-term research will be critical not only to sustaining Moore's law, but to preserving U.S. leadership in IT.
It should also be noted that other nations are not simply waiting for the U.S. to take the lead in this critical area. The European Union for example is funding semiconductor research and development at an order of magnitude higher than America, investing 10 billion euros ($13.4 billion) over the next 10 years. The U.S. risks losing its historic lead in semiconductor innovation if we do not keep pace.
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the secret foundation's mission is to reduce the length of a galactic dark age by accelerating the reemergence of a new empire; in that case, based on micro-miniature technologies. Although the United States will not face a 1,000-year galactic dark age, it could very well face a 20-plus year period of slow growth if Moore's law stagnates before the next big processing technology becomes affordable and scalable. And this unfortunately would come precisely at a time when we will need that growth more than ever: as millions of baby boomers go from being producers to consumers. However, we needn't sit back and passively despair. Instead, we need to urge Congress to fund a national effort to "go beyond CMOS" to get to the next wave of Moore's law as quickly as possible.
Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.