TR: You worked on George W. Bush’s technology advisory committee during the campaign. Is the environment something you plan to be active on with the new administration?Moore: It’s awfully early to judge if Bush is going to be reasonably friendly to the environment or not. You can see some things already where he had opportunities to make significant changes in a negative way and passed them up. The area that Clinton designated a protected area, or not quite a protected area-all of the western Hawaiian island chain, starting beyond Kauai, and all the way up through Midway-mostly uninhabited reefs and rocks such as the French Frigate Shoals and the Gardner Pinnacles. Bush could have rescinded the order and didn’t.
But conservation doesn’t mean putting a fence around everything and keeping people out. You have to come up with ways that people can live with the environment while making as little negative changes as possible. Environmentalists run the spectrum from the very radical-you can’t touch anything-to those who take a much more pragmatic view of it. I’m probably toward the pragmatic end of things. And I don’t have any reason to believe that the new administration won’t take a somewhat similar point of view.
TR: Although this is outside the foundation, for years now you’ve supported the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Why? Do you expect there is intelligent life out there?
Moore: SETI is a far-out program that potentially could have a very profound impact on everybody on earth. I was amazed when it got dropped out of the NASA budget. Some senators started laughing about little green men, and NASA just wouldn’t touch it again. So I got involved in keeping the thing going, with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard-we each committed to support it for five years-and [Microsoft cofounder] Paul Allen came in and did part of it. I was hoping that NASA would wake up and get it back into their program by now. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any movement in that direction.
My view is statistically it’s likely that there is intelligent life someplace else in the universe. If you look here on Earth, where there have probably been a billion species since the beginning, only one of them has become intelligent-so your first-order estimate is a chance in a billion of that happening for a single species. But there’s something like a hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars. Even a small probability multiplied by 1022 gets pretty big.
If it’s close enough for us to ever hear from or not is a much longer shot. But I think it’s very well worth a concerted effort to look for. Potentially, it could make a huge advance for us. You could argue that anybody out there that we happen to find has probably been around at the level that they could communicate much longer than we have. So they’re probably significantly more advanced. Presumably, that intelligence could be transmitted from whomever we find to Earth. We might be able to make huge leaps in a shorter period of time.
TR: That would be something. But for now, we’re stuck with ourselves-and the experience of people like you. Do you have any advice, say, for hopeful entrepreneurs?
Moore: I’ve only seen a couple of ideas in my career that I thought were sufficiently different that I was comfortable considering starting a company on. And clearly, every opportunity doesn’t justify it, as we proved experimentally over the last couple of years. So the only advice I’d have for them is to really understand what your market needs and what your advantages are.
TR: You started by mentioning you weren’t very good at predicting the future. What’s your closing advice on how start-ups, or any company, can achieve success without the ability to perceive how things will shake out?
Moore: First, surround yourself with the best people you can possibly find. And try to anticipate general directions things are going in. When Intel was set up, we really wanted to get a guy with a lot more knowledge of digital systems than we had: we were all components people. So we hired Ted Hoff, a postdoc at Stanford. Ted had done quite a bit with computer architecture and the like.
After we did our first memory chips we were looking for other large-volume applications of complex circuits. That was when electronic calculators were just coming in. So we started looking for a calculator company to work with. But established semiconductor companies had already made deals with the existing calculator companies, and the only one we could find was a Japanese startup by the name of Busicom that wanted to make a family of business and scientific calculators. They had designed some 13 complex custom chips-and wanted us to make those for them.
Well, we could no more take on 13 complex chips than fly with our little engineering group. And Ted Hoff looked at them and said, “Gee, we could do all of these calculators with a general-purpose computer architecture-and I don’t think the processor would be more complex than the memory chips we’re making.” He saw it as an embedded controller very generally. And we said, “Ah, that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for, a general-purpose complex chip.” And so we convinced the Japanese company to throw away all its designs and start over with our approach-and that was the origin of the microprocessor. Having looked ahead and hired Ted Hoff, who had knowledge in areas that we really didn’t, was absolutely key to doing the microprocessors.
And that’s the kind of thing one has to do in order to be ready for what comes along.