Hidden behind the recent good news in the semiconductor industry is a developing crisis that I fear will spread across the entire electronics industry within a decade.
Moore’s Law is not really a law at all; as Dr. Moore himself regularly reminds us, it is merely a social contract between the semiconductor industry and its customers to keep technology moving forward at an exponential rate. There is no intrinsic reason why Moore’s Law must continue. In that case, why do we abide by it? Because whatever the financial costs of keeping up with Moore’s Law, the social costs of not doing so would be far greater.
For 50 years, ICs have been powering the world’s products and services, thereby driving the world economy. Moore’s Law doesn’t just describe the pace of innovation in the semiconductor world, but that of life in the modern world. What’s the price for this extraordinary pace of change? It may surprise you to learn that the answer is right in front of us.
The standard definition of Moore’s Law is that computer chips double in density every two years, but in fact it is much more complex. The law has several dimensions that can be described as different axes of change:
• Size (density). The amount of surface area you have to dedicate to a specific number of transistors gets smaller by the year.
• Performance. The same-sized chip will get ever more powerful in terms of memory storage, computation speeds, etc.
• Price. As you make chips smaller, the price will get cheaper; if you rearchitect your design to leverage the inherent speed gain of individual transistors, the price can be reduced even faster. Nevertheless, increasing performance has been the main focus for decades.
Over the past 20 years, the emphasis has been on increasing chip density while keeping the chip size relatively constant and maximizing performance and integration. More recently, the process of making more-complex individual processors with ever smaller transistors became prohibitively expensive. Faced with that new reality, the big processor companies shifted to multicore designs; it worked, but the cost was to abandon one of the three dimensions—size—probably forever.
The good news is that Moore’s Law is still intact. We can maintain the pace, but we are at a much greater risk of breaking down.
Or are we?
Let me suggest there is in fact a fourth dimension hidden in Moore’s Law that could keep it as strong as ever and may even extend its lifespan: efficiency. Efficiency explains how, in just 50 years, we could progress from building-sized corporate mainframes, requiring their own power grids and refrigeration, to laptops capable of even greater performance.
Several decades ago, efficiency wasn’t particularly interesting. We told ourselves that the average chip consumed just a few watts, and even as it gradually increased to 100 to 200 W individually, it was a minuscule amount compared with light bulbs and home appliances.
But by allowing our industry to become one of the biggest energy sinks on the planet, we have violated the social contract of Moore’s Law. This is unconscionable. We are in the semiconductor business to make the world a better place, not worse; to drive progress, but not at the environment’s expense.
Simply put, we have to initiate change and rethink Moore’s Law to include the long-ignored fourth dimension of efficiency. If we could take 20 percent of total semiconductor R&D and drive down total chip power consumption by 15 percent per year, we could have the average device running on just 20 percent of today’s electrical consumption by 2020. A personal computer would then use just 40 W, not the 200 W per hour consumed currently. That might sound challenging, but consider that today’s smartphones already consume less than 5 W for a full day of use.
Replace every chip in the world with these new low-power devices, and the global market would be able to carry five times as many electronic products as it does today—without adding any extra burden to the power grid.
What would we lose by diverting so much investment from power and price into efficiency? Almost nothing. The next generation of chips might take 18 months instead of 15; your next laptop might run at 2.4 GHz instead of 2.8 GHz; and the 30 percent price cut on the latest generation of iPod might happen next February instead of this November. Are you willing to make that small sacrifice? I think we all are.
What we need now is a new social contract, ratified by the entire chip industry, that agrees we will maintain the total energy consumption of the world’s semiconductor devices at the level it is today. Sound difficult? It is. But if you read about Moore’s Law in 1965 and were told that it would still be setting the pace in 2010, you would have thought it impossible.
The semiconductor industry is all about doing the impossible. Now is the moment for this generation of chip makers to take up the next challenge.
Sehat Sutardja, is chairman, president and CEO of Marvell Technology Group.