Is microchip at 50 ready for retirement?

After 50 years of tectonic improvements, the microchip may be finally be reaching its limits.

Monday will mark the 50th anniversary of the patent for a silicon integrated circuit, awarded to Robert Noyce, an electronics engineer who was later nicknamed “the mayor of Silicon Valley.”

Decades later we are still living in the revolution that began almost immediately, but there are growing signs that Moore’s Law – the famously accurate prediction that the number of transistors will double every two years – is ready for retirement, the Telegraph reports.

“The rate of progress is finally beginning to show signs of slowing down,” says Steve Furber of the University of Manchester in Britain.

A British microchip legend, Furber designed the first ARM processor for Acorn Computers in the mid-1980s.

The silicon successors to his invention, developed by ARM Holdings in Cambridge, can now be found in most smartphones and the onrushing wave of tablet computers.

But while for 50 years the microchip industry has strived to build faster silicon containing more transistors, it is increasingly coming up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: the laws of physics.

The most advanced processors now contain transistors that are just 100 to 150 atoms across. Designing a controllable microchip with such precision takes the equivalent of hundreds of man years, and many firms are finding that the financial risks of pushing further are not worth the return.

“The economics are beginning to bite and the great majority of people are pretty keen now not to be on the cutting edge,” explains Furber.

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“There are about 10 years of to go before we reach the absolute limit. People have been saying that for 30 years, but this time I think it’s probably right,” he concludes.

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