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.