have microchips finally reached their limits?

The observation made by the co-founder of Intel almost half a century ago has guided the meteoric progress of modern computing. But she might have reached the end of her potential. In any case, this is the opinion of the giant Nvidia.

How can our smartphones today be millions of times more powerful than the computer installed on the Apollo 11 lunar rocket? This is largely thanks to one of the fundamental rules of modern computing, but which is now the subject of intense debate among the main players in the sector: Moore’s law.

This “law” was devised in 1965 by Gordon Moore, at the time director of the Research & Development sector of Fairchild Semiconductor, and future co-founder of the electronics giant Intel. According to him, the number of transistors on a constant-size electronic chip was to double every year in the 1970s, a rate then reduced to every two years from the 1980s.

A rule that may seem complex, but whose effects are relatively simple to understand: the transistor is one of the basic elements of modern electronics, one of the famous semi-conductors that are ubiquitous today and whose shortage handicaps very many industrial sectors. If a machine contains more of them – because they have become smaller for example – then it can perform complex operations more quickly, and therefore be more powerful.

Having become one of the foundations of transhumanist hopes to digitize the brain, Moore’s law has nothing to do with a physical mechanism but rather an economic prediction, based on demand and competition between players in the sector.

Components 20,000 times thinner than a hair

And what only seemed like a wet-finger prediction has been verified historically: the number of transistors on a single electronic chip has increased exponentially for half a century. It has grown from 2,308 in 1971 to over 19 billion in 2017, according to data compiled by the Our World in Data website.

This is largely thanks to the miniaturization of components, the smallest of which today measure less than ten nanometers – for comparison, a hair is nearly 100,000 nanometers wide. Major electronic component makers, including Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung, have been in a merciless miniaturization race for years: they can produce 5-nanometer transistors, and the South Korean has outstripped its opponent by shipping recently the first of the 3 nanometer chips. Intel, meanwhile, remains stuck at around 7 nanometers, according to CNBC.

But this frantic race could come up against physical limits. Below a certain size, we enter the domain of the infinitely small, which is governed by the rules of quantum physics. The electrons that move in the circuits could for example pass through the materials if they are too thin, because of the “quantum tunneling effect”, which poses new challenges.

The other problem is that the cost of each new advance is also exponential. The factory that TSMC is building in Arizona, to manufacture 5-nanometer chips from 2024, alone is expected to cost $12 billion, according to Reuters.

What future for Moore’s Law?

Intel claims, however, that the empirical law enacted by its co-founder is still valid. It must be said that the company, which intends to spend tens of billions of dollars (including 80 billion in Europe) to catch up in the race for miniaturization, has things to prove.

In particular, it is counting on new ultraviolet radiation lithography techniques and a new chip architecture (called RibbonFET) to accumulate ever-smaller transistors. With the goal of reaching “a trillion transistors on a single chip package by the end of the decade,” Intel boss Pat Gelsinger said at a new product launch in early October.

But others are more skeptical, like Nvidia, the graphics card giant whose chairman Jensen Huang explained to investors in September that “the push-through method with new transistors and advances in Moore’s Law have largely come to their term,” according to CNBC. And to decide: “Moore’s law is dead”.

This is why the electronics giants are also seeking to push back the current limits without necessarily going through the reduction of transistors. Among the processes studied, the quantum computer, which is based on the interaction of “qubits” – a quantum storage unit – and which must be thousands of times more powerful than a conventional computer. But despite the prototypes put forward by large companies such as Google or IBM, none of these machines has yet achieved its objective, due to the extreme complexity of this new playground. still cram transistors on chips for a few years.

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