Gordon Moore is still amazed at how Moore's Law shaped the tech industry

Gordon Moore Intel
Mark Hachman

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The man credited with creating Moore’s Law can finally talk about it.

“For the first twenty years I couldn’t utter the term ‘Moore’s Law’,” said Gordon Moore, the chairman emeritus of Intel on Monday night. “It was embarrassing. I finally got accustomed to it enough that I can say it with a straight face.”

Intel honored Moore at an event in San Francisco on Monday night for his famous axiom, which has helped guide the evolution of technology for fifty straight years. Even Moore himself appeared amazed at the implications.

Gordon Moore Tom Friedman Mark Hachman

Intel’s Gordon Moore was interviewed by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman at an event in San Francisco Monday night.

As Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich pointed out Monday night, Moore’s Law is as important for its business impact as it is for the technology behind it. While the “law” itself postulates that the transistor density in an integrated circuit will double about every eighteen months or so, the implications are that computational power advances at that pace as well, while the power consumed by the chip also drops. (Moore suggested that the term be one year; a colleague later suggested it should be about eighteen months.)

Why this matters: Moore’s Law set an expectation that Intel has fulfilled—and then some. As Krzanich himself explained it: Since Intel’s first microprocessor, the 4004, was manufactured in 1971, Intel’s chips have increased 3,500 times in performance, and 60,000 times in clock speed. They also have improved more than 90,000 times in terms of energy efficiency. If a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle had advanced at the same pace, Krzanich compared, it would be able to drive at speeds up to 300,000 miles per hour, get 2 million miles per gallon, and cost about 4 cents.

Going and going and going

As most know by now, Moore's Law was born when Moore was asked, for an anniversary issue of Electronics magazine, to look at the future of the industry. Moore projected that the number of transistors would increase from 60 elements to 60,000, but said he thought his prediction was “pretty wild.”

Gordon Moore Mark Bohr Intel Mark Hachman

Intel fellow Mark Bohr talks to Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore.

“The fact that something has gone on for 50 years is truly amazing,” Moore said. Friedman tried to get Moore to predict when the law would run out of steam, but the most Moore would allow is that it could go on for possibly another five years.

Moore said he was amazed at how the advances in computing had spawned offshoots from free Internet services to self-driving cars. Though he was the chief technical officer of Intel when he submitted his predictions to Electronics, Moore said he was trained as a chemist, not as a futurist. ‘We’ve just seen the beginning of what computers are going to do for us,” Moore said. 

“We’re seeing an evolution in the intelligence of machines,” Moore said. “This is not happening in one step, but in a whole bunch of increments. I never thought I’d see autonomous cars driving down the freeway.”

“Google Earth—I could not have imagined something coming out like that, let alone being free,” Moore added.

Since retiring from Intel, Moore and his wife founded the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The foundation concentrates on funding and otherwise promoting basic research in areas where the Moores feel the United States has fallen behind. And it’s not just semiconductors; the foundation invests in marine biology “to understand all the little buggers in the ocean,” Moore said. It also works to avoid preventable medical accidents, such as the shot of insulin Betty Moore once received by accident—it was meant for a diabetic patient in the same room.

Moore, who was interviewed by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was asked what the biggest lesson he learned from Moore’s Law.

“The one thing I’ve learned—once you’ve made a successful prediction, avoid making another one,” Moore said.

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