Suppose you had bought a new computer (or smartphone or tablet) on January 1, 2014. If you buy another new device for the same price on July 1, 2015, the new one will be twice as powerful. On January 1, 2018, the same money will get you something with 5-6 times the power of your 2014 device.
If you continue doing that every 18 months, the device that you buy on January 1, 2020 will have 16 times the overall computing power of the 2014 model.
By July 1, 2021, the new device will have 22 times the power of your old 2014 machine.
OK, to be clear, Moore’s law is not really a “law” in the same sense as the laws of physics. It probably should be called a “rule of thumb,” rather than a law. But it has proven itself to be fairly consistent, based on over 50 years of observations.
It was named for Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation, who wrote a short article in 1965, predicting that the total number of transistors that could be put into a single integrated circuit (or “IC,” aka “computer chip”) in a cost-effective fashion would double every year. Later, he updated it to predict doubling every 2 years.
The current, widely accepted rule of thumb predicts that computer processing power will double every 18 months. This formulation factors in improvements in overall efficiency. As designs, materials, and manufacturing processes improve over time, the same number of transistors actually translate into more computing power.
Moore’s law, has changed somewhat in formulation over the past 50 years, but it has proven to be remarkably resilient. Nobody really knows how long the rule of thumb will continue to hold true. However, it’s worth noting that its imminent demise has been widely prognosticated several times over the past couple of decades, but it’s still going strong.
There’s no clear consensus among experts in computer hardware engineering regarding the question of how many years we should expect the increase in computer power to keep doubling every 18 months, but most agree that this rate will continue for at least the next 5-10 years.
Current technologies will reach their physical limits within that time, but there are several new technologies on the horizon that could extend that horizon indefinitely.
The significance of Moore’s law is not only that our personal devices will continue to grow in power and capability at an exponential rate. Computer processing touches virtually every facet of life for most people in the world. Large-scale systems such as governments, multinational corporations, economies, and electrical infrastructures all depend on computers. As computer chips continue to become more commonly embedded in all sorts of machines, from refrigerators to cars to televisions to robots, Moore’s law will reach further into the ordinary lives of every one of us.
The converging influences of the Four Horsemen of the Datapocalypse will continue to grow at an exponential rate for many years to come.