Laying Down the Law

The semiconductor pioneer and cofounder of Intel discusses his law, aliens, the environment and his new foundation to fund far-out research.

Gordon Moore is most famous for coining Moore’s Law, his 1965 prediction that the number of transistors that could be packed into an integrated circuit would double every year. A decade later, he revised that estimate to every two years-a prediction that has held remarkably true ever since and is often used as a baseline for evaluating performance in other spheres of computing. But the semiconductor pioneer and cofounder of Intel claims he has never really been good at predicting the future. In fact, he says he’s pretty bad at it.

In a wide-ranging conversation from his vacation home on Hawaii’s big island, this 72-year-old avid fisherman and pragmatic environmentalist spoke with Technology Review editor at large Robert Buderi about the future of Moore’s Law, which he’s revising again. He also discussed the newly created Gordon E. and Betty I. Moore Foundation, which he plans to endow with $5 billion worth of Intel stock (about half of his estimated wealth). The new foundation will be geared to supporting far-out university research and advancing programs that protect the environment.

Finally, Moore reveals why he and a few pals named Hewlett and Packard picked up the tab for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence-and shares how it’s possible to succeed wildly in business without having a crystal ball.

This story is part of our May 2001 Issue
See the rest of the issue

TR: Where do you think we are heading technologically? What excites you most?
Moore: I calibrate my ability to predict the future by saying that in 1980 if you’d asked me about the most important applications of the microprocessor, I probably would have missed the PC. In 1990 I would have missed the Internet. So here we are just past 2000, I’m probably missing something very important.
Certainly the things going on in molecular biology these days are exciting. We really are understanding increasingly how all the life processes work. In the information sciences, the increasing capability of networks is changing the way we do everything. It’s going to result in all of us having a lot of bandwidth whenever we want it, to go with a lot of computing power. As far as what are we going to do with all the computing power, I’m sure I’ll miss the most important things. But the one capability that to me will make a qualitative difference in how we do things is truly good speech recognition. That is, a machine that can recognize if you mean t-o, or t-w-o, or t-o-o by understanding in context what you’re saying.

Once a machine understands in context like that, you can actually hold an intelligent conversation with a machine. That will dramatically change the way people interact with machines-and broaden the number of people that can use them. I have no idea how far away that is. At the level I’m talking, it’s probably 20 to 50 years away. But there’s certainly nothing impossible about it.

TR: What about the future of Moore’s Law?
Moore: We’re at a time where we’re kind of doubling about every two years, which is where we’ve been for the last 25 years. But sometime probably between 2010 and 2020, we lose the largest single factor that lets us continue on that curve-our ability to make things smaller [For a complete look at this issue and possible future computing technologies, see TR May/June 2000]. You run into the problem that materials are made of atoms, and we’re getting down to small enough dimensions where they no longer behave like bulk materials. So we’ll have to depend on other factors to continue on this curve. And that means finding better ways to pack things. Some people are talking about moving into the third dimension. A little bit of that has been done. You could also make bigger chips, losing some of the economic advantages. But maybe the doubling time will change from every two years to every four or five years. It’s not the end of progress by any stretch of the imagination. We’ll be putting a billion transistors on a logic chip; it’ll keep designers busy for decades figuring out what they can do with that.

What’s going to replace our technology? I’m a skeptic that anything is. It’s the other way around: our technology is finding its way into a variety of other fields. I view the integrated-circuit technology as the way you make complex structures of materials layer by layer. We got the biology industry making their gene chips using our technology, and all these little MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems. This technology is just very versatile in making these microstructures, and I don’t think it’s likely to be replaced by something else.

TR: What concerns you most about the technological road ahead?

Moore: One concern I have is the rate at which the U.S. is training engineers. We are squandering a good portion of our lead in the world by not training enough of our people so that they can be major participants in industry. There are really good jobs that are going begging, and many of them are getting exported. Intel has technical operations in China, Russia, India and so forth, and we have them there frankly to a significant extent because that’s where there are trained people. I guess I’m still sufficiently U.S. oriented that I cringe to see the quality of jobs we’re exporting overseas.

TR: Does that mean we haven’t motivated people in this way?
Moore: That’s exactly what it means. Frankly, our schools K through 12 have not done a good job with the basic programs necessary to motivate people in the direction of a technical career. Technical careers start early. I don’t think you can wait until people start college to convince them they ought to become engineers, if they don’t know how to multiply and divide. I know in my case I knew generally the direction I wanted to go in before I started high school.

TR: But with the foundation, you didn’t want to get into K through 12 education, to try to promote more people to go into engineering?
Moore: Not unless we had some special new idea for doing it. So many people are tackling it in so many ways, it’s awfully hard to know how to do something different and have an impact. It’s kind of like solving world hunger, the way I look at it.

TR: So instead the foundation focuses more on higher education and science. What were your motivations for starting it, and what do they say about the role of government in funding scientific and technological research?
Moore: The way research is funded in the U.S., with peer review and government projects and the like, does a very good job on the mainstream. Established scientists who are in the system continue to get support. It’s a lot harder for unusual, possibly harebrained ideas to get funded. Those don’t do so well in peer review, typically; and new people trying to get started, or established scientists trying to change fields, have trouble getting support. So I hope we’ll be able to find some projects like that-some of which will be complete failures, but a few of which I hope will open up some new areas.

TR: Was there any particular event that spurred your thinking along these lines?

Moore: Nothing in particular. But, for example, I’ve given small amounts of money to the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech. For a few tens of thousands of dollars, some professors there have been able to try something that would have been hard to fund conventionally, and get some very interesting preliminary results that they can use as a basis to get more conventional funding. One was wanting to study the dust coming in from outer space. Evidently a moderate amount of the dust that falls around is that, and it can be determined by looking at the ratio of the helium isotopes. This professor [Kenneth A. Farley] started out to collect the crud falling in Pasadena to see if he could separate out the dust coming from outer space as opposed to local sources. And he was very successful. It certainly led to enough preliminary information that he had the ability to go in for a federal grant, and I believe he got one.

I think similar kinds of things can happen pretty broadly at any of the good schools. I’ll have to admit to being a bit of an elitist. I think the elite institutions do a disproportionately good job with their research and education. And if anything, the government would like to make things more uniform-to try to spread funds fairly uniformly across the country. There’s probably a very important social aspect in doing that. The federal government clearly can’t give all of its support to Caltech and MIT. But I lean toward making the best even better. We don’t want to build the infrastructure necessary to give away $100 million in $20,000 grants. We would be much more likely to look at the needs of an entire school, rather than trying to do individual projects.

TR: What has you concerned about the environment, and how do you plan to address those concerns?
Moore: Ed Wilson [Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University] tells me that species are disappearing faster now than they have at any time since the demise of the dinosaurs. You can just see whole areas, whole ecosystems being destroyed. This will make the world a very much less interesting place, and very likely a much less resilient place. We won’t be able to recover from some of our disasters, perhaps.

The world is changing rapidly, and wild places are disappearing. For example, I used to go to Baja California a couple of times a year when it was remote and unspoiled. Now you see what’s happened to Cabo San Lucas compared to what it was like in the early ’60s. It’s a lot of hotels and golf courses. It’s Cancn on the end of Baja.

I’ve been involved in an organization called Conservation International that focuses on preserving biodiversity. Where people are not especially well established, getting major areas set aside as preserves is one thing they’re doing. There are really a few major tropical wildernesses left, and that’s appropriate there. But in the so-called hot spots-the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, the Mayan area in Guatemala and Mexico, Madagascar-they work a lot with the local people. Getting local interest and local capacity in conservation is extremely important. But we have to help develop ways to get as great or greater economic value for the local people from leaving the forest standing-say for harvesting Brazil nuts-than chopping it down for a one-time benefit.

In Peru, Conservation International worked with Mobil, which was exploring there, to come up with best practices that would have a minimum impact on the forest and the native people. Such things as instead of building roads, you fly in with helicopters, because roads turn out to be the source of a lot of the destruction of the forest. Once there’s a way in, it’s a route that people tend to migrate out and cut things down next to-the culture just spreads in. So flying in with helicopters avoids that. And it made a significant contribution, so that the exploration was carried out with really a minimum impact.

We will certainly look more broadly than one organization. So far Conservation International has been confined mostly to terrestrial ecosystems-that’s looking at something less than a third of the world. There’s a lot of oceans out there that could benefit from a similar approach, and we’ll have to see how else we can get ahold of the problem. But the idea of biodiversity is a pretty good peg to hang the program on.

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.

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