Moore’s Law is the quintessential trend of the semiconductor industry: it describes the phenomenal growth of computing power that has delivered remarkable technologies like data centers, smartphones and supercomputers. But these same technologies that have enabled more personal and business communications, innovative conveniences and other benefits have also enabled government spying that may well surpass even George Orwell’s chilling vision in 1984. The death of Moore’s Law has been forecast—often incorrectly—for years, but the end (or at least a hiatus) may finally be near. Here’s why that could be a good thing.
The Good and Bad of Moore’s Law
Moore’s Law essentially describes the periodic doubling (about every two years) of the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (IC). The details of the law vary depending on whom you ask; some will add restrictions on size or cost (for instance, the number of transistors for a given IC size and cost doubles every two years), but these finer points are open to debate. For a layman, Moore’s Law simply translates into fast, consistent growth of computing power.
Looking at technology and playing up the potential benefits while discounting the downsides may simply be human nature. Someone considering applications of much greater computing power might naturally think of advanced medical imaging and diagnosis, better investigative tools for science and math, enabling devices for automated manufacturing and agricultural equipment, and so on. But how many of us would—say, 15 years ago—have envisioned a network of devices including cameras, GPS locators and data centers tracking us constantly? The recent revelations of NSA spying showed what is surely just part of a nearly unthinkable government surveillance apparatus.
In light of the fact that more technology simply doesn’t resolve problems with human nature, an end to (or at least extended break from) Moore’s Law could give society a chance to grapple with the approximately 50 (or more) years of computing-technology growth and what it means to goods like privacy, freedom, interpersonal relations and so on.
Focus on Other Things Beyond Technology
The fast pace of silicon development described by Moore’s Law enables solution of technological challenges through brute force. Why, for instance, develop refined, efficient software when you have computing power to spare? The phenomenon of “bloatware” is largely the result of a lack of constraints on the hardware side. If a certain software package consumes only 5% to 10% of available resources in its unrefined form, why bother improving it to save a couple percent (especially if doing so significantly increases costs)? Hardware constraints would drive greater focus on and investment in software innovation.
In the medical field, for instance, reaching the point of “here are your tools, stop expecting new ones” might force a reexamination of the traditional approach to medicine (identify the symptom and prescribe a drug for it). The focus might then shift toward a more holistic understanding of health and disease.
Life Is More Than Smartphones
Almost everyone has seen something like it: a restaurant, bar or other social venue where several individuals (presumably in the same party) are all looking at their smartphones or tablets instead of talking with each other. One might think, on the bases of such situations, that many people enjoy interacting with machines more than with people. (On the one hand, it’s easy to understand that sentiment; on the other hand, maybe that says we have other pressing problems to deal with that technology can’t solve.)
Or consider the smartphone zombie—that pedestrian or (heaven help us) driver who is more interested in some inconsequential information on a small screen than in the potentially deadly accident he or she is about to cause. Have you ever had a conversation (in person!) that is interrupted by an annoying ring tone and a “sorry, I gotta take this”? Beyond the distractions of our technology, we have largely failed as a culture to develop standards of etiquette that keep pace with technology’s development. Admit it: you’ve probably been highly annoyed or offended by someone’s cell-phone antics. Just wait until the waves of wearable technology—epitomized by Google Glass—begin to arrive.
A break from Moore’s Law, although it might make for some boredom in the usual technology news outlets, would give the culture a chance to catch up and establish rules for how innovations should fit into a civilized society. Progress need not always be about pursuing a technology because it’s possible; sometimes, progress is a matter of putting a technology in its place. (Consider, for instance, nuclear technology, which was born with an inhuman bang and has challenged the world ever since in the quest to harness it without being destroyed by it.)
Government (Spying) Tech
Revelations about the NSA’s widespread spying apparatus have once again raised the issue of government violations of basic privacy rights, to say nothing of the clear wording of the U.S. Constitution (specifically, the Fourth Amendment). The difference now is not so much that governments can spy—they have been able to for many decades through either human means or gadgets—but that they can automatically observe and record the actions of virtually everyone. Tom Foremski astutely observes at ZDNet, “Historical data grows in usefulness to Big Brother, because it makes possible a more accurate digital simulacrum of you. With every doubling in computer performance, the simulation of you grows closer and closer to the real you. The computer models get better at predicting what you will or won’t do. Big Brother gets better at predicting intent.”
A break from Moore’s Law might not resolve political problems, but it could provide enough of a breather for the legal framework to catch up with the power of available technology. Innovations—particularly those that enable spying or, worse, democide—would be less likely through simple brute-forcing; instead, they would require a longer and more subtle process. And during that time, the chances of the public discovering them would be much greater, thereby offering some level of protection through knowledge.
The technology industry bears some resemblance to the stock market: just as stocks seem to be driven by money printing on the part of the Federal Reserve, technology is driven in large measure by the steady injection of computing power described by Moore’s Law. Eventually, however, both realms must return to reality to face integration with the other aspects of existence. Although technology enables some societal goods, it also enables some societal evils. Moore’s Law is neither good nor bad, but the pace of technology innovation has left in its dust the kind of careful thought that’s needed to properly integrate that technology into a free and decent civilization. Whether Moore’s Law will end next year or in the next decade is uncertain. When it does end, however, a greater opportunity will arrive to ask the kinds of important questions that the whirlwind of innovation has brushed aside for far too long.
Image courtesy of sirexkat.