Silicon Sinkhole

Maybe what distinguishes one smartphone or computer from another for you is its design, or maybe its price, the services it offers, or the reliability. What underpins it all though is a processor, a silicon based chip. I know, this is obvious, so obvious that it almost doesn't need saying, but the capabilities of modern technology are based on the design and production of processors. In 1975, Gordon E. Moore said:

The number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.
Gordon E. Moore (image courtesy of  Intel )

Gordon E. Moore (image courtesy of Intel)

Moore is a name that everyone should know, right alongside Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As co-founder of Intel, along with Robert Noyce, he set in motion a technological revolution. Whereas Gates and Jobs are best know for companies that develop software and services, Intel develops processors that the software runs on. Every single Mac currently available in the UK uses an Intel CPU (Central Processing Unit). No exceptions.

The above statement by Moore, known as 'Moore's Law', has underpinned the industry for more than a generation. Being able to squeeze twice as many transistors into the same space leads to great performance increases, with one benchmark showing that CPU performance from 1986 to 2002 increased by 52% a year. This has been achieved by making the transistors smaller over time, with transistors at 1000 nm (nanometres) in 1985 and 130 nm in 2001, a decrease of 87%. If you're wondering, a nanometre is a billionth of a metre! So far so good, but continuing to increase performance is getting harder. Fundamental redesigns of CPUs have been necessary to keep performance increasing.

Chips aren't exactly constructed, they're etched into silicon wafers by lasers. The catch is trying to make the lasers increasingly fine, which means wrestling with problems like the wavelength of light. Yes, improvements continue to be made, but now, as individual transistors approach the size of large atoms, we risk running into a wall. Chips depend upon the movement, or non-movement, of electrons through gates. Even if we're able to keep reducing the size of transistors, quantum tunneling could well result in which gates which would previously stop electrons no longer do so. Electrons would teleport from one side of the gate to the other. This means that chips would either behave weirdly, or wouldn't work at all. Thankfully research into alternatives are well underway, with Intel just one of a number of companies investigating alternatives to silicon.



So does any of this matter to you today? Well, have you been wondering why you didn't get that much of a speed boost from your new mobile phone? Have you been wondering why your new PC or Mac doesn't really seem to be that much faster than the old one? Maybe now you have a little insight into why.

Have you noticed a 'flat-lining' in the performance of your technology? Have you learned about any exciting new developments in the manufacture of processors? Why not tell me all about it in the comments.