Moore's Law has decades left, Intel CTO predicts

The theory still holds, Intel's chief technology guru says

Moore's Law will keep going strong for decades, Intel CTO Justin Rattner predicts.

(Why we're hard-wired to ignore Moore's Law)

(Read the Intel CTO's take on why machines could ultimately match human intelligence)

Moore's Law, in force for more than 40 years, says that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit will double every 18 to 24 months. Predictions of the demise of Moore's Law are routinely heard in the IT world, and some organizations are trying to find a replacement for silicon chip technology. But Rattner says that silicon has plenty of life left and said there is no end in sight for Moore's Law.

"If Moore's Law is simply a measure of the increase in the number of electronic devices per chip, then Moore's Law has much more time to go, probably decades," Rattner said in an interview with Network World.

The National Science Foundation is already preparing for a post-silicon world, having requested US$20 million in federal funding for research that could improve or replace current transistor technology. Separately, IBM scientists are building computer chips out of DNA.

Rattner, who is CTO of the world's biggest chipmaker and the head of Intel Labs, the company's primary research arm, predicted that chip architecture will "undergo dramatic changes" in the coming decades but that silicon itself will remain the core element for the foreseeable future. Intel is now moving to a 32-nanometer process for chip production, an upgrade over the existing 45-nanometer process.

"There's plenty of life left in silicon," Rattner says. "We're well along in our 32-nanometer development and I think we'll show some significant product-level results at 32. Right now, in terms of silicon technology we don't feel like we're at some point of demise in any sense. And there are still new approaches to the way we build transistors and devices that will involve silicon and newer materials, like our high-k metal gate silicon technology."

The high-k metal gate technology uses hafnium-based circuitry, which Intel adopted to create smaller processors that are faster and more energy-efficient.

Beyond the search for ever-greater performance and efficiency, Intel's researchers today are striving to make chips more compatible with server virtualization technologies, such as the VMware and Xen hypervisors.

Just a decade ago, Intel had a hard time convincing its own chip designers that virtualization was an important feature, but times have changed quickly.

"Virtualization has become mandatory," Rattner says. "We had a lot of work to do to convince the chip designers that this was a really important feature. At first they looked at it, kind of squinted and said 'really'? Now it's just about the most important thing in the product."

Rattner, who will deliver the opening address at the SC supercomputing conference in Portland, Oregon, in November, also discussed how supercomputing power is being packed into smaller and smaller form factors. What we think of today as supercomputer applications will ultimately move down to desktops, laptops and even mobile phones, Rattner says.

Intel is building many new "system on chip" designs that will add new capabilities to a variety of Internet-connected devices, such as robotics, set-top boxes and various mobile Internet devices.

Rattner says "mobile augmented reality" will become a part of everyday life, with cameras that you can point at an object – such as a famous ruin – and instantly receive detailed information about what it is.

"That's augmented reality, where you take real world information, and you overlay the virtual information that informs you about the scene," Rattner says. "Beyond that, what we see happening is an increasing amount of what we call perceptual computing tasks, as small form factor machines have richer sensor capabilities."

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Jon Brodkin

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