Semiconductors are Eating the World

April 20, 2015 / Ben Bajarin

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.

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.

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 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 is 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.

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 with 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 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.

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