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AT LARGE: Less is more

AT LARGE: Less is more

Hurrah! Another reprieve for Moore's Law! Here I was, about to join the naysayers and admit that the fundamental underlying tenet of microprocessor technology development was reaching its logical limit, when - boom! - Intel comes through again. Kudos, dudes, kudos.

Intel is very proud of Moore's Law, as well it should be. It is, after all, a reasonable contender for being the only remotely accurate prediction that has ever been made about the technology industry. Offices still use paper, voice recognition is still a toy, the Internet has not replaced television and Apple continues to do business - these predictions have fallen by the wayside. But processors continue to double in density roughly every 18 months - doggedly, even.

Intel takes some pride in this because the Law was coined by its very own co-founder, Gordon Moore, who only last month went into semi-retirement and stepped down from the board of directors (he retains chairman emeritus or some such honorary title). It's been getting harder for processors to cram extra transistors in lately, and more than one pundit had begun predicting that Moore's Law would have to take its place in history alongside the man himself - we pundits love such coincidences of timing.

The progression of the Law is limited by simple - well, actually, kinda complicated - physics. The size of current transistors made with current materials simply cannot get smaller before the fluctuations in their movement (the opening and closing inherent in their functioning) starts to get confused with the electromagnetic radiation they produce. Make them any denser, they get less reliable. A breakthrough was required.

Then, just in the nick of time to save the legacy of its founder, Intel has just announced new transistors only 80 atoms wide. One component of the new widget is reportedly three atoms wide. We are talking nanometres here, folks. Real little. The cool thing about that is that you can fit about a billion of the suckers into the same space currently occupied by a mere 42 million transistors on a Pentium 4. Well, you probably can't, but Intel can. And thanks to the new materials involved, they can switch on and off much, much faster without, for want of a better turn of phrase, interfering with themselves.

Intel will start building the new transistors into processors over the next few years. It means Moore's Law has probably bought another decade or more. By the time it runs out again, I'll be able to fit an amusing and informative column in only 200 words.

Matthew JC. Powell thinks a nanometre is a device for measuring grandmothers. Correct him on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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