Provoking Through Forecasts

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a BBC World Service program on Moore's Law while driving, when I heard something so surprising to me I nearly drove into another car. Interviewed on his "proclamation" in a 1965 article that the number of transistors that could be placed on an integrated circuit (IC) would double every two years, Gordon Moore, then at Fairchild Semiconductor and later co-founder of Intel, said his forecast wasn't as much a law as a hope—a sort of manifest destiny he hoped would encourage his fellow engineers to push innovation to stay on this development line. This backstory of his own law surprised me.

His forecast was based on only a few years of growth up to 1965, and he thought it would only hold for the next 10 years, but it has proven accurate for over 40. Still, for Moore, it was something of a dare to the industry, a provocation that he hoped would pave the way to realizing his vision of integrated circuits delivering an economic jolt to the fledgling industry of computing. "Companies know if they fall below that trend line, they lose out, and if they can get ahead of that trend line, they can get a proprietary position," Moore said in the documentary. Only now is the end of Moore's Law in sight, with ICs reaching a probable physical limit in minaturization sometime in the next decade, where the physics breaks down.

Why is this important? It is a great illustration of the complex, sometimes misunderstood, relationship—and often blurry lines—between forecasts, predictions, and provocations. Moore's Law turned out to be true for an important period of time because he wanted it to be and for others to believe it could be—a sort of written design fiction. It was also a forecast based on expectations and an implicit understanding of what might be possible given certain variables. But, like Kennedy's moon challenge, it stirred both engineering and economic interests to aggressively follow a path he charted out. This is in part the value of illustrating a possible future: it becomes a clearer path to follow, and occasionally a powerful galvanizing force in driving it toward reality.