Moore’s Law, Iran and The Internet

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Long before Al Gore… the Internet was actually invented here….

In 760 BC, the Great Shah of Iran had two passions: warfare and games.

Thus it was that his Vizir invented something for him that combined both. He called it ‘chess’.

The Shah was so taken with this new invention that he told the Vizir he could have anything he wanted as a reward: gold, palaces, a governorship. Anything.

The Vizir was a very clever man. Perhaps too clever. He thought for a moment, and then told the Great Shah that all he asked, if it was not too much trouble, was that the Shah took a chessboard and place a single grain of rice on the first square.

The Shah, of course, nodded intently….

Then, said the Vizir, double it on the second square, so that there are two grains, then double it again on the third square so that there are four…. and so on, all the way to the end of the board.

The Shah, thinking to himself no doubt, ‘this Vizir is perhaps not so smart after all’ instantly agreed. ‘What a fool. When he could have had all the riches in the world, to ask for only a few grains of rice’.

So it was done.

And on the next morning, on a giant chess board set up in the Shah’s courtyard, servants began to count out the rice – square by square.

1 became 2, which became 4,then 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 (or 1k), 2k, 4, 8k, 16k, 32k, 64, 128k, 256k, 512k, and so on…..

Does the pattern of numbers begin to look a bit familiar to you?

They will if you know something about computers.

They are not only grains of rice, they are also microchip processor speeds.

In 1947 William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor. It replaced vacuum tubes. As with most inventions, Shockely did not see the impact of his own invention. He thought, at most, transistors might find an application in hearing aids.

By the 1960s, Shockely had been joined by Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, who founded Intel. They began to put transitors, or microprocessors on silicon chips. In 1961 Moore postulated that the speed and number of microprocessors on each chip would double every 18 months… just like the rice on the chessboard.

In ancient Persia, by the time you got to the 64th square, it required more grains of rice than would go from the Earth to Mars. Far more than the entire net value of the Persian Empire. The Vizir, so the story goes, was executed instead.

Gordon Moore suffered no such fate.

His ‘law’, remarkably, is still in effect, some 45 years later.

The doubling of processor speed (and halving of cost each time), has had a fantastic impact on our culture – far more of an impact than wars, Presidents, celebrities or TV shows. It is, in fact, probably the single most powerful driving factor in our world today.

For with each ‘doubling’ of processor speed comes a whole new revolution in what is possible in computers and online. (and the massive consequences for each industry touched by it).

As Moore’s doubling rolled across the chessboard of the 1960s and 70s, it started to hit markers. By the late 60’s, processor speeds had become powerful enough, and cheap enough to allow hand for held calculators. (David Packard)

A few years later, the Apple II. (Steve Jobs)

A few years after that, reasonable word processing and spreadsheets. (Bill Gates)

A few more ‘doublings’ and you could process music digitally. A few more ‘doublings’ and the Internet becomes a viable tool for transmission of information in packets. A few more ‘doublings’ and you can process video in the same way. Broadcast quality cameras fit in the plam of your hand. Video editing is in a laptop and costs nothing.

That is where we are now, but, as with the grains of rice, the doubling will only continue. We are nowhere near done.

Last week, IBM announced the development of a new chip that will be able to download a feature length movie in HD in 1 second. That is fast! That means iTunes for movies is just about here.

And even that is not the end.. but rather only an indication of what is yet to come…

In the Roman Empire, paper was so rare that the average person never saw a piece of paper in their entire lives.

Today, it is so common, so cheap that we routinely toss out most of the Sunday Times without even thinking about it. We wrap our f0od in it. Toilet paper.

In the not too distant future, computing power will be the same. Virtually free. This is going to happen.

But seeing the future has its dangers….

You could be the next Bill Gates….

Or the Grand Vizir.

4 responses to “Moore’s Law, Iran and The Internet

  1. fantastic article … but processor performance is not just about clock frequencies anymore . Moore’s law is being driven by different means now a days

  2. For a great many feature length movies, one second is about all the attention they deserve. Oh, you were talking about the time to download, not to watch. Pity.

    BTW, while it’s true that spreadsheets and word processing were so-called killer apps for the computer, credit should go to Visicalc and Wordperfect, not Bill Gates. The dominance of Microsoft’s Office software came later, after those markets had already been established.

  3. as an aside: i just read where the US is something like 15th in broadband penetration.

    15th!!!

    you’d think there was a concerted effort afoot to keep things as slow as possible for as long as possible.

  4. Rob — While origination credit for spreadsheets and word processing probably should go to VisiCalc and WordPerfect, popularization credit really should go to Bill Gates. Rosenblum has lectured many times about how “an invention comes along and nobody knows what to do with it.” Only later does someone else — someone who probably wasn’t there at the creation — figure out how to make broad and deep impacts with the new technology.

    For example, Apple didn’t invent the mouse or the windowing interface — Xerox researchers did. But Apple knew how to popularize it, explain it, market it. Google didn’t invent the idea of web search — there were directories and searching systems before they arrived. But they made it work, they made it invaluable, and they made it wildly profitable.

    VisiCalc and WordPerfect were major forerunners in their invented categories, and WordPerfect lasted for many years in competition with Microsoft Word. But Microsoft’s products killed off both originators in time, such that most people don’t even remember the earlier products. Shoot — even WordPerfect wasn’t the first (WordSTAR, anyone?).

    Today, I think we’re in the same situation with video editing and distribution — there are some early creators, but no one has yet figured it out and sort of set the standards for this new world. TV is the old model. YouTube is a possible new video distribution model, but I suspect it won’t remain the Google of its own industry (ironically enough) as things develop.

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