For decades, the widely accepted computing principle of Moore’s law seemed like a given. The law, coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in the ’60s, predicts the doubling of the number of transistors that can fit into an integrated circuit chip about every two years. Basically, every two years or so, technology is supposed to advance enough for computer chips to get twice as powerful. This, in turn, means that each new laptop, phone, or camera available to consumers every two years, as well as more powerful devices like spacecraft, should be exponentially improved in a whole host of ways.
In recent years, however, Moore’s law—which held true for more than four decades—began to seem in danger of collapsing. Theoretical physicists predicted that the law would soon break down, arguing that computer power can’t maintain rapid exponential improvements with standard silicon technology. It’s not that the transistors made by tech companies can’t physically get any smaller: They can, but too many little chips packed into such a small area ineffectively suck up power and can cause overheating. According to experts, at a certain point the tech world might just have to be stuck with a standard-size computer chip that couldn’t feasibly shrink any further.
But now techies can heave a sigh of relief: On Thursday, IBM announced its development of a fingernail-size computer chip that has roughly four times more processing power than ever before. The transistors in IBM’s new chip clock in at a size of 7 nanometers long—an industry record. According to IBM, the company was able to make its breakthrough due to the use of silicon-germanium, a material that has lower power requirements than silicon and also speeds up transistor switching. Fourteen-nanometer transistors were the previous industry standard. The New York Times offers a way to understand the new transistors’ unbelievably small size:
As points of comparison to the size of the seven-nanometer transistors, a strand of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers in diameter and a red blood cell is roughly 7,500 nanometers in diameter. IBM said that would make it possible to build microprocessors with more than 20 billion transistors.
IBM has not yet released information about when it will begin commercially manufacturing its new generation of chips, which are only in working versions right now. But in a statement, the company said that it expects the new 7-nanometer technology to be crucial in “meeting the anticipated demands of future cloud computing and Big Data systems, cognitive computing, mobile products and other emerging technologies.” IBM’s development of the chip comes out of the company’s $3 billion investment last year in partnership with New York state, GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and equipment suppliers, aimed specifically at manufacturing ultra-advanced computer chips. Thursday's announcement bodes extremely well for the semiconductor industry, which will be able to harness IBM's new technology for further innovation down the line. It also ensures that the two-year rule of Moore's law—a celebrated pace that the computer industry has often boasted about in the past—will continue thriving for at least a few more years.