End of the Tech Gold Rush


Jay Park, Web Editor in Chief

  It is undeniable that the largest progress in all of human history has happened within the last hundred years. At the core of this development is the exponential growth of the speed of computers. It is their level of automation and unmatched calculations that has enabled us to land on the moon, globalize trade,, and create prosperity and unimaginable wealth.

  The technological changes in the past century may not be as symbolic as the discovery and harnessing of fire. Yet what is incredible is that an iPhone 6 is millions of times faster than NASA’s “supercomputers” in the Apollo 13 and 14 missions. The iPhone 6 is capable of handling 3.36 billion instructions per second, which still pales in comparison to the state-of-the-art computers of today. It was only fifty years ago that the entire memory of the average computer would be equal to the memory of a single high resolution picture today, which is around four megabytes.

  But this exponential growth of computers may be coming to an end. While it is tempting to believe that it is thanks to human ingenuity alone that we have come so far, physical limitations have caught up.

  Moore’s Law was the name given to the prediction made by Gordon E. Moore, chairman of Intel, in 1965. He pointed out the trend of how integrated circuits doubled in complexity at a constant rate. Thus Moore stated that such pattern would continue for at least 10 years. It has applied until 1980, when it has doubled every two years until now. With complexity increasing exponentially, speed has obviously followed accordingly.

  What this means is that technology has allowed us to “cram” semiconductor (often silicon) transistors into circuits. Because transistors are essentially neurons of the brain, transferring and switching electric current, more transistors lead to faster performance. Computers take more instructions and perform faster calculations.

  This is where we have reached a problem. Moore’s Law is not absolute, unlike those of physics and mathematics. Transistors cannot become any smaller. Their current size is 14 nanometers, smaller than most viruses in our bodies. Because the size of a silicon atom is 0.2 nanometers long, if transistors were any smaller, they could not maintain their form or function. Even the cost of making smaller transistors is exponential, also greatly contributing to the slowdown of computer innovation.

  There have been many creative approaches to this fast approaching problem. The deadline for the the limit of transistors seems to be 2020 or 2021. Quantum computing has seen popularity, with usage of subatomic particles to bypass the limitations of electricity currents. Other proposals include using light transmissions or just enlarging circuits. While sound in theory, these solutions are under very strict conditions, mainly cost and application. Quantum computing is distant and uncertain, while others are simply too expensive.

  The next decade seems cloudy. The progress we have taken for granted in the half-century will suddenly stop. This abrupt ending brings a lot of large implications, both economically and socially.

  The technology corporations originating in Silicon Valley that are dominating market and are increasing their influence into society will run out of steam. The constant stream of “new and improved” products will no longer be actual performance improvements. These companies know this and are likely floundering to prolong their existing sales for as long as possible. They will reveal, or at least attempt to conjure up some “groundbreaking” innovation that differentiates new editions of their phones or computers. But in reality, they will be just marketing gimmicks.

  While there may be some small, actual improvement in performances, whether it is through squeezing  processor resources or adding some extra transistors, unless there is a revolutionary discovery, technology will inevitably plateau. It will be interesting to observe how this stagnation will influence the tech giants, and if the power they hold will swing over to other groups. The computer science field will certainly be impacted, but it is difficult to say how quickly it will adapt. Lack of innovation may potentially signal dark times ahead in terms of funding its research sector.