The order of magnitude future

14 November 2012

Giles Burton-Owen considers the inexorable progress and evolution of the tech world

Around 1970, the law known as Moore’s Law was formulated: the simple statement that processing power would double, and price halve (or similar paremeters) every 12 to 18 months. A phenomenal prediction at the time, but one that has held amazingly well so far. We see a new range of impressive processors come out every year, but recently, the push has been for parallelism rather than sheer speed of silicon: for density over yield and integrity. This means that figures such as transistors per chip go up, but the performace that actual user experiences does not necessarily go that way (after all operating systems and programs cannot be custom fitted to a particular architecture of parallelism while keeping general enough for consumers). Basically the problem is we have hit a wall: Silicon just isn’t fast enough. It pretty much tops out at around 8.3GHz (or so the over-clockers seem to have proved). Now while this might be pretty fast, it means that to get more power, one has to have higher complexity. To add to this we are hitting the limits of just how small you can make a single transistor (about 5nm). So what the world really needs is a completely new technology base: something that can go orders faster, orders smaller, orders lower power… And we are starting to see such technologies emerging in labs around the world, some are even beginning to make real progress, so much so we may see them in a decade or so.

A similar problem is that of space travel: its been pretty common for a few decades now but in no way is it cheap or easy, it takes thousands of tons of fuel to propel tons of satellite into orbit costing millions. To say take men off Mars or other feats, we don’t need a little more energy and some clever design, we need loads more energy and loads less weight, we need systems which run off pretty much no power. We need an order of magnitude.

Labs at the moment, like for semiconductor design, are also discovering new materials (also often based off carbon) which give strength and weight properties way better than what aluminium and carbon fiber currently deliver. But this brings with it a whole new set of accessibility problems: how could you drill something as strong as diamond with a hand drill? Who could grow crystals of insanely complicated solution in their garage? What start up could afford very high cost manufacturing just to keep up with big companies? At the moment the technology industries are split, but in hardware enthusiasts can mostly match big companies in terms of materials, maybe not in reproducibility, but in ease of prototyping certainly. The cut off in comparative technologies for smaller companies cannot be a good change for the consumer.

So what will the future of engineering hold? Probably a few very able companies with patented super materials, licensed to medium-sized manufactures. The future looks pretty bleak; especially thinking how many massive developments have come from little companies.

Energy use too needs to be massively reduced if we are to continue living. The current trend is to insulate a bit more, make some renewable power stations and charge more for fuel and these approaches sort of help solve the problems at hand. But it doesn’t go anywhere near the problem that the amount of energy and material the average person in a developed country uses is way, way more than is ever sustainable. In energy we need an order leap to the consumer using less, not reducing the impact of each unit, but reducing the units. Our way of living is totally unsustainable and we need to reduce impacts by tens or even hundreds of times.

We face a time where we need some pretty amazing orders of magnitude leaps to get to where we want, expect and really need to be. Hence I leave you with this prediction: “If humanity survives the next 300 years, we will survive the next 1500. Although I guess I’ll never know the answer.