With Moore’s Law in doubt, eyes turn to quantum computing

The chip industry is giving another sign that Moore’s Law is coming to an end, but IBM is offering a glimpse at what might be computing’s future.

Industry experts from around the world who have been working together for years for forecast technology advances in the tech industry are throwing in the towel. The next version of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which is produced jointly by the semiconductor industry associations of the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, will be the last, the New York Times reported.

The reason: the industry can no longer count on silicon chip technology advancing like clockwork as Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted back in 1965.

“The end of Moore’s Law is what led to this,” Thomas M. Conte, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Times.

Conte and other experts are working on a replacement for the forecasts that will include other types of technologies, including so-called quantum computers.

Moore’s Law was a forecast that was born out of an observation about the pace of chip technology. Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double every one to two years. His forecast held true for decades and helped power many of the advances that we’ve seen in computing since the 1960s, as computers have gotten smaller, more capable and ever more powerful.

But Moore’s Law has started to break down in recent years as the size of the transistors has shrunk down to near the atomic scale. Chip companies have had increasingly difficult times trying to pack more and more transistors on to each chip.

Some experts think there are ways out of the future — just not with silicon-based chips.

Chip experts are already exploring — and in some cases already producing — chips made of materials other than silicon. One material considered promising is graphene, which is a form of carbon.

Another possibility is to ditch the cut-and-dry, black-and-white, binary computer architecture for the weird world of quantum mechanics. Some computer scientists are already pioneering computers that are built around quantum bits, or “qubits.”

Instead of speaking the 0’s and 1’s — or off and on — that represent the basic language of traditional computers, quantum computers offer three possibilities for each bit — 0, 1 and both 0 and 1 at the same time. By introducing that element of uncertainty — the so-called superposition of 0 and 1 — quantum computers could potentially solve certain problems much more quickly and efficiently than classical computers.

Quantum computing is still in its infancy, but IBM is allowing researchers to start experimenting with it. The company announced it has connected a five-qubit quantum computer to its server cloud on the Internet and is allowing anyone to use it for research for free.

IBM has been working on quantum computing for 35 years. Its new Quantum Experience marks the first time that a quantum computer has been accessible for use by the public at large.

“With Moore’s Law running out of steam, quantum computing will be among the technologies that could usher in a new era of innovation across industries,” the company said in a statement. “This leap forward in computing could lead to the discovery of new pharmaceutical drugs and completely safeguard cloud computing systems. It could also unlock new facets of artificial intelligence … develop new materials science to transform industries, and search large volumes of big data.”

So, even if Moore’s Law is tapped out, computing may well march on.

Photo: Antonio Corcoles, a research scientist with IBM’s quantum computing effort, taps into the company’s  cloud-connected Quantum Experience quantum computer on a tablet in the company’s Quantum Lab in Yorktown Heights, New York. In the background is a refrigerator system used to cool the quantum computer. (Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM)


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