Silicon Insider: Welcome to Moore's War

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?

The processor itself is another triumph, the greatest of all, of digitalization. The integrated circuit is merely a collection of transistors, silicon switches, that turn on and off. It's a complicated architectural problem, but put simply, the smaller you make those transistors the faster they can work. These days, they can snap open and closed more than 1 billion times per second.

What Gordon Moore saw that day was the first emanation of this new clock. One of the greatest minds of the electronics age, he quickly understood what has taken decades for the rest of us to fully appreciate. It is that once you move from analog to digital, the challenge suddenly shifts from constantly inventing something new to one of just getting better at the same thing — a much easier task. You didn't need to always wait for genius; most of the time all you needed was better manufacturing.

Growing Gap Between U.S. and the World

What even Moore couldn't understand at the time was that this process would, at an astonishing rate, extend to every corner of modern life. It wasn't just about chips, because once you put those chips into a telephone, or a desktop calculator, a car or a bomb — those systems also took on the characteristics of Moore's Law.

That is, their performance suddenly accelerated away from the long-established status quo. They became more effective, cheaper, smaller. Most of all, they became "smart."

We have now seen that process occur in one industry after another. The human genome project would have been impossible 20 years ago. Now it has not only been done, but was completed early, thanks to rise of new digital tools that brought Moore's Law to biology.

The same process has occurred in one market or sector or discipline after another. Once it finds a way to go digital — either in its tools, its information networks, or new software-based forms of automation — it jumps onto the irresistible train of Moore's Law and roars out of sight.

We in America have grown somewhat jaded to this process, muttering epithets if it takes too long to load a Web page or the PDA confuses a letter we've written. But make no mistake, we are living in a historic period.

The developed world is pulling further and further away from the underdeveloped world because of Moore's Law. And now the United States is accelerating away from the rest of the developed world precisely because, more than any other nation, we have embraced, we've inhabited Moore's Law.

The Last Conventional War?

That's why the world fears us. And with good reason. Ronald Reagan pulled down the Berlin Wall and destroyed the Soviet Empire merely be announcing that he would embark on a technology race, that is, jump on Moore's Law, against the Kremlin.

In fact, the U.S. military was late to the game. I remember, in the 1970s, Silicon Valley companies refusing to sell parts to the Defense Department because all of its demands for specific performance, years of availability and reams of paperwork, would slow down their innovation. Even the DoD's efforts to lead technology initiatives, such as VHSIC, were ham-fisted and blind to the culture of Moore's Law.

But the Pentagon eventually learned its lesson, and learned it well. By the 1990s, the U.S. military had stopped trying to manage Moore's Law and learned to embrace it. The soldier fighting now in Iraq is as well-equipped technologically as his counterpart in a Seattle office cubicle, and both intellectually and functionally his equal.

But perhaps nothing better captures the impact of Moore's Law on the U.S. military than the JDAM, the technology — recapitulating what happened to consumer and industrial products over the last 40 years — that enables a simple chip-based device to be attached to a bomb or missile and make it "smart."

Ultimately, the real "shock and awe" of this war will not be the bombs raining down on Iraq, but the realization, as the world watches those pinpoint explosions, that this is just the beginning. Now that America, and America's military, is aboard Moore's Law, the transformation has only just begun.

The law, as I've said, is exponential, which means it only gets faster and faster from here on. This war, Moore's War, will likely be the last conventional war in U.S. history; the next one will be fought by remote control, with bombs that can be aimed to the inch.

Very soon, no one else in the world will be able to keep up. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn't just being vindictive when he said we could fight this war alone. The truth is that most other countries' armies are now as much an impediment to us as a help.

The French have accused us being a "hyperpower." They are half right. We are now, thanks to Moore's Law, a powerful nation about to launch into hyperspace.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to Forbes.com.

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