Processor progress is alive and well, the maker of Apple's iPhone chips says

Moore’s Law and other aspects of chip progress are doing just fine, TSMC research leader Philip Wong says. Shown here is one of the slides Wong used to illustrate his talk at the Hot Chips conference.


Photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Enough with the doom and gloom about Moore’s Law. Computing progress charted by the famous 1965 observation, along with other chip improvements, will keep our digital devices humming ever faster, said Philip Wong, head of research at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.

“Without any doubt, Moore’s Law is well and alive. It’s not dead, it’s not slowing down, it’s not even sick. It’s well and alive,” Wong said Tuesday at the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University. He also detailed other chip developments, like sandwiching memory right on top of the processor, that he predicted will boost performance.

Wong is in a good position to know. TSMC is one of the world’s top 3 chipmakers, along with Samsung and Intel.

And happily for Apple fans, TSMC is the chipmaker that happens to build the A series of processors that power the iPhone and iPad.

Processor pessimists

Moore’s Law predicts that every two years, chipmakers can double the number of transistors that economically fit onto a chip (transistors being the basic circuitry elements that process information). But Intel has struggled to shrink its chip technology, and more broadly in the industry, the price per transistor no longer is dropping. That limits new manufacturing processes only to premium, high-cost chips. And the good old days of the chip industry, when chip clock speeds increased with no penalty on power consumption, are long gone.

So it’s no surprise there are pessimists in the chipmaking business.

Wong is so optimistic, though, that the slides for his Hot Chips presentation cheekily forecasted progress out to 2050. He wasn’t offering any detailed plan to get us from here to there, but he was telling us not to expect progress to grind to a halt as electronics reach the fundamental atomic size limits.

David Kanter, analyst at Real World Technologies, is a bit more guarded. With TSMC now neck-in-neck with Intel instead of following, it’s had to assume more leadership and invest more in research and development, so it’s not a surprise to hear the company sounding so bullish. But Wong glossed over some real issues for chip progress like slowing progress in shrinking transistors and the increasing expense to build the latest-generation products.

Fundamental improvements

“Expect to see more innovation in different directions that will provide you…continuous benefits,” Wong said. “That’s what we care about.”

Chip technology elements are shrinking to extremely small sizes a bit larger than a water molecule, TSMC research leader Philip Wong says.Chip technology elements are shrinking to extremely small sizes a bit larger than a water molecule, TSMC research leader Philip Wong says.

Chip technology elements are shrinking to extremely small sizes a bit larger than a water molecule, TSMC research leader Philip Wong says.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Wong offered a number of directions for future progress:

  • New technology will make transistors faster and smaller. One technology long under consideration, carbon nanotubes is now becoming practical. Another, called 2D layered materials, can provide a similar boost by letting electrons flow more easily through chips.
  • A handful of new memory technologies will be built directly into processors instead of connected as separate chips. That fast link will dramatically boost performance because the logic circuitry on the chip — the part that does the processing — will get the data it needs sooner so it won’t have to spend as much time idling.
  • 3D stacking technology will mean computer processor functions that are isolated today can be sandwiched into multiple layers, linked with high-speed data pathways called through-silicon vias.

“In these kinds of systems with multiple layers of logic and memory integrated in a fine-grained fashion, connectivity is key,” Wong said.

TSMC research leader Philip Wong predicts progress in new computer memory technology.TSMC research leader Philip Wong predicts progress in new computer memory technology.

TSMC research leader Philip Wong predicts progress in new computer memory technology.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Software will have to catch up

As with other profound technology shifts, though, it’ll take work for software to catch up, he said. That’s because algorithms tuned to work with one set of constraints will be imbalanced as bottlenecks open up.

But once that’s accomplished, the chip progress will offer computing devices. And that’s crucial, Wong said: “Society’s need for advanced technology is insatiable.”

Originally published 3:53 p.m. PT.
Update, 4:23 p.m.: Adds analyst comment.

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Stephen Shankland

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