We’ve all seen it happening: shiny and fantastical electronic devices coming out year after year, each one rendering its predecessor obsolete. Why does this happen? Will we eventually hit a breaking point? We can find the answer to both of these questions in one of computer science’s most tried and true principles: Moore’s Law. 

Apple’s new A13 chip, which is only a couple of centimeters big, has more than 8 billion transistors on it!

In 1965, George Moore predicted that, within a fixed power, cost, and area, the performance of digital electronics will roughly double every two years. That’s why the smartphone that you’ve had for a few years can seem like a total dinosaur. And the flip phone you had in middle school? Forget about it! One way the tech industry has been able to keep up with Moore’s Law is by making advancements in transistor manufacturing. Transistors are one of the very basic building blocks of electronic circuits- it’s not an understatement to say they make the world go ‘round. Making transistors smaller and smaller therefore makes our devices better and better. For example, the nostalgia-inducing Motorola Razr (2004) had a processor chip with something like 100 million transistors on it. That sounds like a lot, but in the newest iPhone there are 8.5 billion!

To fit that many transistors on a chip, things have to go nanoscale (the ones on the iPhone chip are 7 nm big). And, there’s the rub. When materials get that small, you wander into the realm of quantum mechanics, where matter and energy behave in fundamentally different ways. Quantum tunneling allows for electrons to move in new and unpredictable ways, and the physics of transistors starts to break down. In a sense, they become unable to speak the language of computers, and they’re useless! 

We’re approaching a breaking point faster than you might think- the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors report from 2015 projected no improvements in transistor scaling beyond 2021, and while some recent reports are slightly more optimistic, we are almost certainly going to reach the limits of current transistor scaling by the end of the decade. 

IBM Quantum Computer | Interior of IBM Quantum computing sys… | Flickr
A look at the inside of IBM’s quantum computer. It’s pretty large, but so were computers in the good old days. (Image source: flickr.com)

This might all leave you a little hopeless and worried that we will never attain a Jetson’s-level futurescape. But fret not, plenty of folks are already thinking “beyond Moore” and “more than Moore.” These are essentially catch-all terms for technologies and infrastructures that are vastly different from our current semiconductor-based electronics. Ideas range from optical computing (using light instead of electrons to operate) to utilizing entirely new materials and physics.

One of the most interesting and exciting new avenues is quantum computing, which leverages a variety of quantum mechanical effects to change around the quantum bits, or qubits, that drive computer functions. Strategies like quantum computing are poised to be many times more efficient than our traditional devices, and they’re no longer science fiction! Large scale interest and investment in new electronic and computer technologies is crucial if we want to keep up with Moore’s Law.

Peer edited by Danica Dy

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