6/02/2007

MOORE'S LAW ROLLS ON

Seeing as the Herald on Sunday don't seem to have got its act together to put my Tomorrow's World Sci/tech columns online, I thought I'd post the last two including graphic editor Phil Welch's table showing the evolution of Moore's Law.


TOMORROW’S WORLD - CHIPPING AWAY AT MOORE'S LAW
Remember those chunky beige computers and brick-like mobile phones that pop up in re-runs of old movies from the eighties?
They’re a world away from the wafer-thin mobile phones and lightweight laptops we carry around these days. Much of the improvement has been down to evolution of computer chips, which have got smaller and more powerful every year for the past 40 years.
And speculation that scientists are coming up against hard limits in how much smaller and faster they can go was blown out of the water last week with Intel and IBM both unveiling new methods of shrinking chip technology even further using more sophisticated nanotechnology methods.

The new chips will not only have faster clock speeds and be smaller, but consume less power, so your laptop or mobile phone battery will last longer.

For the scientists at Intel and IBM, the companies responsible for most of the innovation in the world of computer chips, the successful trials of 45nm (nanometer) chips come as a great relief.
That’s because the new chip technology helps preserve Moore’s Law, a principal that has driven computer chip development since the 1960s.

Named after Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, Moore’s Law dictates that the number of transistors on a computer chip, will roughly double every two years, and get cheaper to make. Since Intel began producing its silicon chips, the law has held true, leading to the current generation of dual-core and quad-core processors and the high-performance IBM chips built into the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3.

The current generation of chips hold around 280 million transistors. But that will increase to 410 million transistors when Intel moves to its Penryn family of chips, which are based on 45-nanometer technology.

Those chips will be in the market early next year even as Intel seeks to build chips using a 30nm process. IBM will follow later with its own chip family it’s developing with Intel rival AMD and partners such as Toshiba.

Shrinking the size of computer chips and squeezing more transistors onto a sliver of silicon has this time required a new method. IBM and Intel are using metal and insulating material dubbed “high-k” to make the gates that surround the tiny transistors and determine whether they are switched on or off. Until now they have been using silicon, which is less able to hold an electrical charge.

So expect electronics to continue to get smaller, faster and more power-efficient in the next few years and take a digital photo of your slimline computer and svelte mobile phone. In a decade’s time you’ll no doubt chuckle at how chunky they seem.

On the web:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law
TOMORROW’S WORLD - COMETS AND STAR WARS
They say comets bring plague and pestilence, but there’s been only wonder and excitement since Comet McNaught began appearing in the night sky to the South West.
I first saw him at dusk one evening as I headed south for Wellington on the Desert Road. He started out as a shimmering star, but developed a long, glowing tail as the sky darkened.
For a couple of hundred kilometres I followed McNaught, a guiding light through the windscreen, before he disappeared behind the hills.
With that orange tail, the “Great Comet” is one of the most impressive things I ever seen in the night sky. But there’s something equally thrilling in spending a night out under the stars spotting man-made satellites, as I did on holiday away from the light pollution of Wellington at Riversdale last week.
It is amazing the frequency with which satellites pass over. They come from all directions and move at varying speeds depending on their size. One of the biggest is the International Space Station, but there are dozens of smaller satellites appearing. The excellent website Heavens Above tells you where and when to look for comets and gives their magnitude rating which indicates how bright they appear in the sky. In satellite spotting, a negative mag rating is a good thing.
To give an indication – the sun is -26.7 mag. The International Space Station is -2.
You don’t have to lie on your back watching the sky for long to realise there are a lot of satellites circling the earth. There are set to be even more. The great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, once predicted a time when every village has its own satellite in space. The way things are going, he could well be right. Nations are scrambling to get into space with their own satellites to reduce their dependence on foreign satellites for crucial things like national security, weather monitoring and communications.
The US owns or operates around half the satellites 845 satellites orbiting the earth.
Those late to the space race have something else in mind too – joining the elite club of nations that have put astronauts in space and employed re-usable spacecraft to do so.
Last week a capsule launched by India’s space agency splashed down in the Bay of Bengal boosting the Indians’ plans to send an unmanned capsule to the moon in 2008. They hope to put an astronaut into space by 2014 but will be doing it on a shoestring compared to the space programmes of the Americans, Russians and even the Chinese.
As the Indians celebrated their successful mission, China blasted one of its own aging weather satellites to pieces using a new anti-satellite missile it developed. It has the ring of Reagan’s Star Wars programme and shows just how crucial having your own satellites and the ability to take out your potential enemy’s one really is.
Meanwhile, the aims of New Zealand’s fledgling satellite programme Kiwisat are much less ambitious but far more innocuous. It involves putting a tiny satellite into low earth orbit for use by amateur radio enthusiasts.
On the web:
http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~jpsl/KiwiSAT_index.htm

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