Welcome to Moore's War.
As I write this, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers are fighting in Iraq.
In the first few hours of the war, we witnessed one of the greatest and most devastating opening salvo in the history of warfare. Thousands of so-called smart bombs, dropped from bombers and fighters and launched from air and sea batteries in missiles, descended on predetermined targets all over Iraq, hundreds in each wave, and wave landing almost simultaneously. "Shock and awe" was indeed an appropriate term.
While there has been a lot of coverage of these smart munitions, there has been little in the general press about how these advances occurred, and what they imply for the future. Much of this can be blamed on the usual ignorance of the media to all things sufficiently technological.
In fact, as the commanders involved with these weapons have said (with a certain awe of their own), the new smart weapons represent a revolution in warfare, a radical discontinuity with the past, and a historic transformation that has only just begun.
Put simply: The U.S. military has now jumped aboard Moore's Law.
Progress at Warp Speed
You know Moore's Law, the notion first proposed by Intel founder and Silicon Valley legend Gordon Moore nearly 40 years ago that semiconductor chip performance doubled every couple of years. Moore's Law really isn't a "law"; it isn't particularly precise, and it has been overused in the last couple years. But the fact is, what began as a simple line on a sheet of logarithm paper has proven to be the most powerful diagnostic and predictive tool of the modern world.
The power of Moore's Law is that it is exponential in an arithmetic world. Through human history, almost every human advance has been accretionary, a little improvement here, a meaningful jump over there.
On the few occasions in the last 3,000 years where there has been an order of magnitude improvement — domestication of the horse, the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture, steam power, mass production — the very nature of human society has been transformed. Social institutions have been restructured, life expectancies have changed, even our relationship to the time and space have been rewritten.
The Shock and Awe of Moore's Law is that it makes possible such revolutions not every half-millennium, but every 24 months.
Moore's Law stopped being just about computer chips long ago. What have come to appreciate is that the law is in fact an emanation from a more sweeping event: the shift from analog to digital.
The natural world, of course, is analog, a landscape of grays and indeterminancies and in-betweens. Its numbers are very complicated; its events all but undecipherable. Thus, any advances in tool-making or information gathering in the analog world is very difficult — hence the slow pace of technological advance over the last 4,000 years.
Digital, on the other hand, is simple. It is binary, just ones and zeros. All the hard work is done up front, designing the algorithms and software programs that tell the 1's and 0's what to do. After that, it just comes down to speed: How fast can you pump those units, those bits, through the processor?