Just how many cars can a road in Delhi or Mumbai take? If that question sounds familiar, you should not have much trouble figuring out Moore’s Law. It is a wonder that offices across the world have been revolutionised by a staid-sounding law named after the co-founder of microchip-maker Intel Corp, Gordon E. Moore. This week, the semiconductor scientist famously admitted that the chips could soon be down for the most famous computer law named after him. He told a conference of electronic designers that his law may conk out in about 15 years or so. To get to the basics, Moore’s Law is the prediction on the basis of which companies have been doubling the speed of microchips that go into computers at frequent intervals. It states that the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled roughly every two years. Companies have largely been able to follow this curve by shrinking the size of transistors. Shrinking the size of the transistors makes them cheaper, faster and often more energy-efficient. This is a bit like shrinking the number of cars for roads to take more of them.
Given the degree of finesse and capital required, it was Moore’s Law, propounded in 1965, three years before the founding of Intel, that provided the focus that spawned arguably the profound instrument of technological and, possibly, social change, that heralded the arrival of the knowledge economy.
Now, Moore was no Marx, but one could say that he was as important a figure. People like Moore made the Silicon Valley what it is today, and gave it a culture and character that revolves round mixing a dogged pursuit of esoteric laws with an audacious entrepreneurial energy to create wonder products. If the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the end of the communist dream for the foreseeable future, the end of Moore’s Law, though it appears nigh, is of equally poignant significance. If Marx’s socialist determinism helped the creation of civil societies in which countervailing forces challenge the might of business or politics, Moore’s Law, arguably on more firm ground, has generated the power to help humanity multiply the potency of its brain power. There are still those who believe that you can work around Moore’s Law to make chips go faster. For the moment, in a world increasingly linked by the Internet, that seems relatively irrelevant, because connectivity has taken the place of processor speed in the larger social discourse. But Moore’s Law will live on to tell us of the power of knowledge. Somewhere in this large world, other such laws must be in the making to take humanity to newer frontiers.