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Gordon Moore, the elder statesman of the technology industry, passed away today at the age of 94.
He was one of the nation’s greatest citizens as a pioneer of the semiconductor industry and chairman emeritus of Intel, which he cofounded in 1968. He was known for formulating Moore’s Law in 1965. He predicted that the number of components on a chip would double every couple of years or so.
That prediction has held up remarkably well for about 58 years. In 1965, chip makers could fit about 64 transistors on a chip. By 1971, Intel could fit 2,300 transistors on its first microprocessor, the Intel 4004. Nvidia can now put 80 billion transistors on a graphics processing unit (GPU), and Cerebras can put 2.6 trillion transistors on a pizza-size silicon wafer.
That is the power of exponential growth. And it was the reason why Silicon Valley became a global hub of technology and why America led the tech industry. It’s a sad commentary that Moore died the same month that Silicon Valley Bank declared bankruptcy.
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Moore died at his home in Hawaii, surrounded by his family, Intel said in a statement.
Moore and his longtime colleague Robert Noyce founded Intel in July 1968 (Andy Grove was considered an employee, but he was often honored as a cofounder as well). Moore initially served as executive vice president until 1975, when he became president. In 1979, Moore was named chairman of the board and chief executive officer, posts he held until 1987, when he gave up the CEO position and continued as chairman. In 1997, Moore became chairman emeritus, stepping down in 2006.
I had the pleasure of meeting Moore in earlier days, when he regularly came out to be a beacon for younger leaders of Silicon Valley, which was a bunch of orchards when he arrived in the Bay Area. Like Intel cofounders Robert Noyce and Andy Grove, Moore became one of Silicon Valley’s greatest thought leaders.
He noted at one point that the number of transistors built by the chip industry had just about surpassed the number of ants in the world. Such calculations were an inspiration for engineers around the world. And they communicated the scale of the electronics revolution.
He was also nice. I last saw him in person in 2015 at an event that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law. He appeared on stage with New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman. They talked about how semiconductors, which Moore pioneered at Shockley Laboratories, Fairchild Semiconductor, and finally Intel. At that event, Moore ambled up on stage a little slowly, but he was still as sharp as you’d expect the cofounder of Intel to be. He had a melodic voice and a folksy style.
Speaking at the Exploratorium, a monument to science, Moore said, “I was beginning to see in our laboratory that we would get more electronics on a chip, and this was an opportunity to get that message across. I had no idea it would be so precise as a prediction.”
The original prediction was that the number of transistors would double every year. In 1975, progress had slowed a little, so Moore revised the prediction to double every two years. Still, that was only a slight miscalculation.
More so than anyone else, Moore defined and codified the pace of modern life. Moore’s Law worked like a metronome for Silicon Valley. If you kept up with it, you were successful. If you didn’t, the competition blew past you, according to Silicon Valley author Michael Moore.
Moore made his famous prediction in the April 19 issue of Electronics magazine back in 1965. Friedman noted that Moore predicted just about every big tech gadget, save for microwave popcorn.
At the time of the 2015 event, Intel Core i5 processor has 3,500 times the processing power of the first Intel microprocessor, the 4004. It has 90,000 times more energy efficiency and 60,000 times lower cost. If cars made the same kind of progress, you could go 300,000 miles per hour and your car would cost 4 cents, said then-Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.
While Intel still invests huge amounts in R&D, it has been surpassed by longtime rival Advanced Micro Devices in a lot of ways and the two companies are more competitive than ever.
And for decades, Intel ruled the microprocessor industry that it invented in the days of Moore’s tenure at Intel.
Asked what the biggest lesson of Moore’s Law, Moore said, “Once I made a successful prediction, I avoided making another.” The crowd laughed.
Extrapolating for ten years was pretty wild to Moore, who specialized in self-deprecation.
“The fact that it has gone on for 50 years was astounding,” he said.
He said Moore’s Law won’t last forever. But he said it would work for five or ten years if you apply good engineering. He said he hoped the industry wouldn’t hit a dead end. Many predicted that the industry would hit a standstill on progress decades ago.
But while many experts are now doubting that we can stay on the path of Moore’s Law, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said that Moore’s Law was alive and well. That very same week, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang said that Moore’s Law was dead. I noted that was not good timing, as the tech industry was about to inaugurate the race to produce the metaverse.
In 2015, Friedman noted that 47% of jobs could be wiped out by automated technology such as artificial intelligence. Moore said, “Don’t blame me for any of that.”
Moore was humble. Carver Mead, a Caltech professor, coined the term “Moore’s Law.” Moore said that for the first two decades, he couldn’t utter the term “Moore’s Law” because it was so embarrassing. After that, he was eventually able to say it with a straight face, he said.
Asked if Moore’s Law or Murphy’s Law were more popular on Google, Moore said, “Oh, Moore’s Law beats it by a mile.”
Grove and Moore
When Intel started in July 1968, Robert Noyce served as CEO while Moore was executive vice president. In 1975, Moore became president. In 1979, Moore became chairman and chief executive officer, and he remained in that position until 1987, whereupon he became chairman. He was named chairman emeritus in 1997. Grove succeeded Moore as CEO.
Grove, a Hungarian immigrant who had to flee the communists in the 1950s, was much more of an aggressive and hard-charging competitor, espousing the philosophy “Only the Paranoid Survive,” which was the title of his memoir.
Intel pioneered chips such as dynamic random access memory (DRAM), which is still used as the main memory in personal computers and other devices today. But in the 1970s, the Japanese were “dumping” memory chips at below-cost prices in order to drive rivals out of the market. In a famous strategic retreat, Grove had a conversation with Moore. They asked each other what would happen if a new CEO took the helm at Intel. The answer was obvious. Intel would exit the DRAM business.
So Grove said he suggested the unthinkable, “Why don’t we do that ourselves?” Intel did exactly that and refocused on its fledgling microprocessor business. That turned out to be one of the best business decisions of all time, as Intel won a deal with IBM to get its microprocessor into the IBM PC. Intel soon had an enduring 80% market share of the PC microprocessor business and it became the biggest chip company in the world.
Grove’s decisions inspired books such as Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, which points out how rare it is for a company to decide to disrupt its own business by shelving a product it has pioneered. Grove was thinking offensively, seeking to disrupt Intel’s business before someone else did it. He worried about things like discerning “signals from noise” and looking for those special moments that were “strategic inflection points,” when something big changed and the trends were truly turning in another direction.
The future of Moore’s Law
In 2022, Intel announced that its researchers foresee a way to make chips 10 times more dense through packaging improvements and a layer of a material that is just three atoms thick. And that could pave the way to putting a trillion transistors on a chip package by 2030.
During the 2015 event, Moore said, “I can’t see anything else that has gone on for such a long time with exponential growth.”
Moore said he got interested in chemistry when he was young by playing with explosives that he created with his chemistry set. He played around with nitroglycerin and was on the road to making dynamite.
“Really?” Friedman said in surprise.
Moore said he is excited about the frontiers of tech such as robotics, which his grandchildren are working on.
“Our position in the world in fundamental science has deteriorated pretty badly,” he said. “Other countries are spending more on basic research than we are, and ours is becoming a lot less basic.”
“He was a giant in the semiconductor and computer world and leaves behind an amazing legacy,” said longtime analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.
Back in 2015, Harvey Fineberg, president of the The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, said that in 1965, the U.S. was investing 10% of its budget in research and development, and now that figure has fallen to less than 4%. Fortunately, in 2022, Congress passed the Chip and Science Act, and President Joseph Biden signed it into law. It sets aside tens of billions of dollars for investment in chip factories in the U.S. in an attempt to bring them back from foreign shores.
During his lifetime, Moore dedicated his focus and energy to philanthropy, particularly environmental conservation, science and patient care improvements. Along with his wife of 72 years, he established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has donated more than $5.1 billion to charitable causes since its founding in 2000.
“Those of us who have met and worked with Gordon will forever be inspired by his wisdom, humility and generosity,” said Fineberg today, in a statement. “Though he never aspired to be a household name, Gordon’s vision and his life’s work enabled the phenomenal innovation and technological developments that shape our everyday lives. Yet those historic achievements are only part of his legacy. His and Betty’s generosity as philanthropists will shape the world for generations to come.”
Intel continues to introduce new concepts in physics with breakthroughs in delivering better qubits for quantum computing. Intel researchers work to find better ways to store quantum information by gathering a better understanding of various interface defects that could act as environmental disturbances affecting quantum data.
Gelsinger, Intel CEO, said in a statement, “Gordon Moore defined the technology industry through his insight and vision. He was instrumental in revealing the power of transistors, and inspired technologists and entrepreneurs across the decades. We at Intel remain inspired by Moore’s Law, and intend to pursue it until the periodic table is exhausted. Gordon’s vision lives on as our true north as we use the power of technology to improve the lives of every person on Earth. My career and much of my life took shape within the possibilities fueled by Gordon’s leadership at the helm of Intel, and I am humbled by the honor and responsibility to carry his legacy forward.”
Asked what he wished he had predicted, he said, “I wish I had seen the applications earlier. To me the development of the Internet was a surprise. I didn’t realize it would open up a new world of opportunities.”
He added, “We have just seen the beginning of what computers will do for us. The evolution of machine intelligence. It is happening in incremental steps. I never thought I would see an autonomous vehicle driving on our highways.”
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