The J Curve

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Transcending Moore’s Law with Molecular Electronics

The future of Moore’s Law is not CMOS transistors on silicon. Within 25 years, they will be as obsolete as the vacuum tube.

While this will be a massive disruption to the semiconductor industry, a larger set of industries depends on continued exponential cost declines in computational power and storage density. Moore’s Law drives electronics, communications and computers and has become a primary driver in drug discovery and bioinformatics, medical imaging and diagnostics. Over time, the lab sciences become information sciences, and then the speed of iterative simulations accelerates the pace of progress.

There are several reasons why molecular electronics is the next paradigm for Moore’s Law:

• Size: Molecular electronics has the potential to dramatically extend the miniaturization that has driven the density and speed advantages of the integrated circuit (IC) phase of Moore’s Law. For a memorable sense of the massive difference in scale, consider a single drop of water. There are more molecules in a single drop of water than all transistors ever built. Think of the transistors in every memory chip and every processor ever built, worldwide. Sure, water molecules are small, but an important part of the comparison depends on the 3D volume of a drop. Every IC, in contrast, is a thin veneer of computation on a thick and inert substrate.

• Power: One of the reasons that transistors are not stacked into 3D volumes today is that the silicon would melt. Power per calculation will dominate clock speed as the metric of merit for the future of computation. The inefficiency of the modern transistor is staggering. The human brain is ~100 million times more power efficient than our modern microprocessors. Sure the brain is slow (under a kHz) but it is massively parallel (with 100 trillion synapses between 60 billion neurons), and interconnected in a 3D volume. Stan Williams, the director of HP’s quantum science research labs, concludes: “it should be physically possible to do the work of all the computers on Earth today using a single watt of power.”

• Manufacturing Cost: Many of the molecular electronics designs use simple spin coating or molecular self-assembly of organic compounds. The process complexity is embodied in the inexpensive synthesized molecular structures, and so they can literally be splashed on to a prepared silicon wafer. The complexity is not in the deposition or the manufacturing process or the systems engineering.

Biology does not tend to assemble complexity at 1000 degrees in a high vacuum. It tends to be room temperature or body temperature. In a manufacturing domain, this opens the possibility of cheap plastic substrates instead of expensive silicon ingots.

• Elegance: In addition to these advantages, some of the molecular electronics approaches offer elegant solutions to non-volatile and inherently digital storage. We go through unnatural acts with CMOS silicon to get an inherently analog and leaky medium to approximate a digital and non-volatile abstraction that we depend on for our design methodology. Many of the molecular electronic approaches are inherently digital and immune to soft errors, and some are inherently non-volatile.

For more details, I recently wrote a 20 page article expanding on these ideas and nanotech in general (PDF download). And if anyone is interested in the references and calculations for the water drop and brain power comparisons, I can provide the details in the Comments.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Recapitulation in Nested Evolutionary Dynamics

I noticed the following table of interval time compression midway down the home page of

“3–4 million years ago: collective rock throwing…
500,000 years ago: control of fire
50,000 years ago: bow and arrow; fine tools
5,000 years ago: wheel and axle; sail
500 years ago: printing press with movable type; rifle
50 years ago: the transistor; digital computers”

Then I burst out laughing with a maturationist epiphany: this is exactly the same sequence of development I went though as a young boy! It started with collective rock throwing (I still have a scar inside my lip)..... then FIRE IS COOL!.... then slingshots…. and the wheels of my bike…. then writing and my pellet gun.... and by 7th grade, programming the Apple ][. Spooky.

It reminded me of the catchy aphorism: “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (the overgeneralization that fetal embryonic development replays ancestral evolutionary stages) and recapitulation theories in general.

I’m thinking of Dawkin’s description of memes (elements of ideas and culture) as fundamental mindless replicators, like genes, for which animals are merely vectors for replication (like a host to the virus). In Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore explores the meme-gene parallels and derives an interesting framework for explaining the unusual size of the human brain and the origins of consciousness, language, altruism, religion, and orkut.

Discussions of the cultural and technological extensions of our biological evolution evoke notions of recapitulation – to reestablish the foundation for compounding progress across generations. But perhaps it is something more fundamental, a “basic conserved and resonant developmental homology” as John Smart would describe it. A theme of evolutionary dynamics operating across different substrates and time scales leads to inevitable parallels in developmental sequences.

For example, Gardner’s Selfish Biocosm hypothesis extends evolution across successive universes. His premise is that the anthropic qualities (life and intelligence-friendly) of our universe derive from “an enormously lengthy cosmic replication cycle in which… our cosmos duplicates itself and propagates one or more "baby universes." The hypothesis suggests that the cosmos is "selfish" in the same metaphorical sense that evolutionary theorist and ultra-Darwinist Richard Dawkins proposed that genes are "selfish." …The cosmos is "selfishly" focused upon the overarching objective of achieving its own replication.”

Gardner concludes with another nested spiral of recapitulation:
“An implication of the Selfish Biocosm hypothesis is that the emergence of life and ever more accomplished forms of intelligence is inextricably linked to the physical birth, evolution, and reproduction of the cosmos.”

Friday, September 10, 2004

Whither Windows?

From the local demos of Longhorn, it seems to me that OS X is the Longhorn preview. As far as I can tell, Microsoft is hoping to do a subset of OS X and bundle applications like iPhoto. Am I missing something?

It seems that the need to use a Microsoft operating system will decline with the improvement in open source device drivers and web services for applications.

Why worry about Microsoft operating systems as a non-user? Well, the spam viruses on Windows affect all of us. I have not had a Mac virus for at least 10 years (sure, you could joke that nobody writes apps for the Mac any more =), but my email inbox has seen the effects of the Windows worms.

And of course, I am an indirect user of Microsoft servers. And that can be another source of concern. Microsoft is a global monoculture and is therefore subject to catastrophic collapse. The resiliency of critical computer networks might suffer if they migrate to a common architecture. Like a monoculture of corn, they can be more efficient, but the vulnerability to pathogens is more polarized - especially in a globally networked world.

When will the desktop Linux swap out occur, as it did seamlessly at Apple with the XNU kernel in OS X?

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Accelerating Change and Societal Shock

Despite a natural human tendency to presume linearity, accelerating change from positive feedback is a common pattern in technology and evolution. We are now crossing a threshold where the pace of disruptive shifts is no longer inter-generational and begins to have a meaningful impact over the span of careers and eventually product cycles.

The history of technology is one of disruption and exponential growth, epitomized in Moore’s law, and generalized to many basic technological capabilities that are compounding independently from the economy.

For example, for the past 40 years in the semiconductor industry, Moore’s Law has not wavered in the face of dramatic economic cycles. Ray Kurzweil’s abstraction of Moore’s Law (from transistor-centricity to computational capability and storage capacity) shows an uninterrupted exponential curve for over 100 years, again without perturbation during the Great Depression or the World Wars. Similar exponentials can be seen in Internet connectivity, medical imaging resolution, genes mapped and solved 3D protein structures. In each case, the level of analysis is not products or companies, but basic technological capabilities.

In his forthcoming book, Kurzweil summarizes the exponentiation of our technological capabilities, and our evolution, with the near-term shorthand: the next 20 years of technological progress will be equivalent to the entire 20th century.

For most of us, who do not recall what life was like one hundred years ago, the metaphor is a bit abstract. So I did a little research. In 1900, in the U.S., there were only 144 miles of paved road, and most Americans (94%+) were born at home, without a telephone, and never graduated high school. Most (86%+) did not have a bathtub at home or reliable access to electricity. Consider how much technology-driven change has compounded over the past century, and consider that an equivalent amount of progress will occur in one human generation, by 2020. It boggles the mind, until one dwells on genetics, nanotechnology, and their intersection.

Exponential progress perpetually pierces the linear presumptions of our intuition. “Future Shock” is no longer on an inter-generational time-scale. How will society absorb an accelerating pace of externalized change? What does it mean for our education systems, career paths, and forecast horizons?

Friday, September 03, 2004

Joke of the day

You know, there are actually 10 types of people...

Those who think in binary and those who don't.