As technology continues to improve, the machines we depend on keep getting smaller and smaller. According to some, Moore’s Law has reached the end of its useful life, but this maxim has helped to roadmap and co-ordinate developments across the industry. If the exponential growth of processing power is coming to an end, where will that leave us?
Have you ever heard of Henry Buckminster Fuller? He was a great polymath. A futurist, inventor, architect, author, designer and the second World President of Mensa. He can also claim to have coined the term “ephemeralization”, which in his view was the ability of technological advancement to achieve “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing”.
Arguably, that’s the entire purpose of technology – to enhance our abilities and enable us to achieve more, in as seamless and unobstructive a way as possible.
And nowhere has that trend been more visible than in computing technology. The ability to accomplish more with less.
When IBM released their first computers (IBM 360) for business, they required entire rooms to house them, but today people routinely carry a far greater level of computing power in their pockets.
It’s hard to put the extent of that progress into terms that we can understand. The world’s first microprocessor available to business contained 2,300 transistors that were each about the size of a red blood cell. That was in 1971. These days a chip can contain somewhere in the region of 2,000,000,000,000 transistors. All that computing power, concentrated into such a small space.
People talk about Moore’s Law, which suggests that the number of transistors on a computer chip will double every two years. For a long time, that seems to have been proven true, although we are rapidly approaching a limit. If technological development continued at this speed for another decade, we’d arrive at a point where transistors would have to be smaller than the smallest atoms: helium particles. Silicon, which is what most transistors these days are made from, has an atomic radius roughly four times that of helium. Realistically the model is beginning to run out of track.
For many experts, Moore’s Law has reached the end of its useful lifespan, as marginal gains are now becoming simply too difficult to achieve. Besides which, it’s possible that the paradigm will shift to quantum computing before much longer. Yet already, as technology continues to shrink, modern transistors are as small as a few nanometres. You could fit nearly a million on the head of a pin. And what implication does that have for us? A massive economy of scale. Saving space at a microscopic level makes it possible to save energy and space at a macro level too.
For example, the ThinkCentre M90n Nano is smaller than most paperback books, yet its 8th generation Intel® Core™ delivers the same powerful performance of a regular desktop. Whereas fifty years ago, a computer needed a whole room’s worth of space, now we can fit hundreds of office blocks’ worth of power onto every single desk. And we can run them on the tiniest percentage of that energy, using the smallest desktop machine in the world.
The potential is enormous. The more powerful our technology becomes, the more capabilities we’re discovering. We’re managing to extract more and more value from inconceivably vast data sets, while using smaller machines than ever before. The next stage for the development of computers could be finding a workable, physical implementation of qubits (quantum units of information). Technology companies around the world have been pouring massive amounts of money into R&D, with a major breakthrough of quantum supremacy being published in the Nature journal this year (2019). And so the march towards ephemeralization continues – if there is a limit, we haven’t found it yet.
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