Semiconductors are Eating the World

Marc Andreessen famously articulated that “software is eating the world”. However, embedded in this observation is the central point that, before software can eat the world, semiconductors must eat it first. Thanks to Moore’s Law, this is exactly what is happening.

We are on a journey to not just connect unconnected people and groups to the internet, but to also connect the unconnected things. Smoke alarms, thermostats, refrigerators, coffee pots, toasters, basketballs, tennis rackets, cars, water heaters, fuse boxes, golf clubs, pet collars, band aids, thermometers, toilets, light bulbs, door locks and more, all the things previously unconnected are being outfitted with small, power efficient semiconductors.

It is a reality that semiconductors are eating the world which, in turn, makes it possible for software to thrive. As semiconductors permeate the world, it creates opportunities for software and services to break into previously uncharted territory.

The Invasion of Silicon

IC Insights estimates that, around 2017, one trillion semiconductors (integrated circuits and opto-sensor-discrete, or O-S-D, devices) will be shipped annually to mark a new milestone but also the new normal.

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Notable milestones in semiconductor unit shipments include:

– 1987: semiconductor unit shipments first breached the 100 billion mark
– 2006: exceeded 500 billion units
– 2007: exceeded 600 billion units

When it comes to transistors, the numbers get even more staggering. It is estimated that, since the invention of the transistor, ~2.9 sextillion transistors have been shipped. That is two with 21 zeros after it. I also came across this tweet last week.

Eight trillion transistors per second. This number is only going to increase and at magnitudes of orders annually. That means, one trillion semiconductors annually by 2017 and this number will only grow for the foreseeable future.

By 2025, there will likely be roughly five to six billion people connected to the Internet and over 50 billion connected products.

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What is fascinating about where we are heading is today we can, for the most part, count the things we own that connect to the internet. Over the course of the next decade this will become impossible. Nearly everything around us will be connected in some way, shape or form. This is the result of semiconductors eating the world. Semiconductors will enable a connected world where almost everything becomes technology, or at least enabled by it. In this future, technology disappears because everything is, essentially, technology. All of this thanks to the pursuit of Moore’s Law.

The Relentless Pursuit of Moore’s Law

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law. What always struck me about Moore’s Law is it’s more of an observation than a law. Even more interestingly, it could have ended at any time. It has been more of a benchmark and a goal to pursue for Intel. Intel has worked in relentless pursuit to keep Moore’s Law alive and the entire technology industry has benefitted from it. Other semiconductors like AMD, and the host of companies in the ARM ecosystem, have benefited from the pursuit of advancing process technology so semiconductors can invade the world. Thanks to the pursuit of Moore’s Law, we have computers that once filled up rooms that now fit in our pockets and on our wrists.

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This pursuit of Moore’s Law will continue to make it possible for semiconductors to eat the world. As it happens, the unconnected world becomes connected. As Moore’s Law continues, connected things get smarter. We have a computer with two billion transistors in our pockets. In five to six years those same pocket computers could have eight billion transistors. What would we do with a pocket computer with eight billion transistors? We are going to find out.

Moore’s Law will continue to benefit the industry. Intel and Samsung both have semiconductors at the 14nm process technology. Next will be 10nm and then 7nm. With each step forward, semiconductors will continue to eat the world and provide the mechanism for software to follow on and eat its fair share of it too.

Will Moore’s Law end? This remains the question we don’t have an answer for. But the threat of the end of Moore’s Law is nothing new. In all likelihood, the economic benefits of Moore’s Law will end, or at least be challenged, before the science does.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

5,277 thoughts on “Semiconductors are Eating the World”

  1. “Will Moore’s Law end?”

    Yes, but were still far from the edge. A silicon atom has a diameter of about 0.1176 nm. For silicon semiconductors, this would be the limit of a single atom thick wire. It would be typical of any material based electronic circuit. Other methods of computing such as Photonic circuits can change that, but their computing model is also different. Quantum computing is more different still.

    “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” -Richard Feynman.

    1. Yes agree about the atom point. Intel gives me confidence they will get to 7nm. Not sure if anyone else will! But beyond that is a little more hazy. EUV seems to be what I keep hearing from all the fab guys. But we won’t know for another few years.

      1. At some point, in our lifetime, there will need to be a new computing model for the next “tick” or “tock”, whichever that is… 😉

    2. As far as I know, Feynman’s discussion of the physical limits of computing systems remains completely valid. It suggests many orders of magnitude of improvement are possible beyond what we have today. I was a physics major. I have tremendous respect for physics where it sets limits on what can be accomplished, and for the ability of technology to continue to advance where the limits haven’t been reached. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, “[we will] find a way.”

      1. That’s why we need to look away from just making things smaller (Moore’s Law) and more into other modes of computing. Though still generations off, quantum computing can work on multiple different calculations simultaneously. Yes, we will find a way, and (pun intended) it may be a “quantum jump”.

    3. Well, though 0.235 nm is the Si-Si bond length, on the industrially-used (100) face of silicon, the atomic spacing 0.384 nm, so a 7 nm wire is more like 18 atoms wide. The group of Michelle Simmons at U. New South Wales has published papers showing Ohmic conduction on a 1.5 nm wire, which is basically 4 atoms wide, and also a transistor using 1 Phosphorus atom embedded in Si as the channel. This is all done in a manual fashion, and for quantum computing purposes, but could also be the basis of a new way of making conventional digital electronics circuitry. Extending this technology to more complex patterns, and automating it to make many copies in a small amount of time, could mean a variety of truly atomic-scale devices become possible, although making them by the trillion on a 12-inch wafer is not in the foreseeable future.

      Note that the research agency, DARPA, has stopped funding improvements in Moore’s Law, for the simple reason that they don’t see much of a future for it.

      1. Thanks for the detailed information. I was going “back of the envelope” on it. I used twice the atomic radius (you are right that it’s half the bond length). I was simply laying Si atoms side to side. I can envision template effects causing this to be so, we already have strained silicone, after all.
        Anyway, quite illuminating. Thanks again.

  2. I think at this point Moore’s Law doesn’t matter as much as it used to: software, batteries, security and hard/soft/legal interfaces and standards are what’s holding IT back; not that much processing power/RAM/storage.
    I’m sure we will find ways to use those cycles and megabytes, and not only in high-performance computing, and “smaller” has the nice side-effect of energy efficiency. But I’m fairly sure that if semiconductors fully stagnated for the next 5 years, it wouldn’t make that much difference at the end of those 5 years.

    1. I always respect your opinion, but when it comes to high performance computing, there’s never fast enough. These jobs are as important, in the right hands, as making computers easy to use for the general user. They literally save lives, improve lives, and provide lives worth living.

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