Sensors gave machines the ability to perceive things like light, altitude, and moisture by converting stimuli into ones and zeros. The coming revolution will be filled with what are called “actuators,” which do the reverse. They allow machines to simplify our world by converting those ones and zeros back into some form of force, such as light or magnetic waves, or even physical pressure that can push objects. The actuator, like the sensor before it, is part of technology’s relentless quest to make machines do more and more things with greater and greater efficiency, as epitomized by the microprocessor, the most efficient information device ever made. ... whole industries will be reshaped. The market for fossil fuels, for example, will suffer a new setback, as power for your electric vehicle can be delivered from a simple charging plate that works in much the same way your Apple Watch gets juiced up in its cradle. The life-sciences market will have to adjust to a world where tests can be performed and therapies delivered from a capsule you swallow to detect cancer. And robots that use actuators to move parts with great precision—and can be recharged wirelessly—will take on more manufacturing tasks. ... One of the most promising is made of a compound of gallium and nitride, referred to as GaN. It’s far more efficient than silicon at converting the movement of electrons into energy radiating outward.
The difference between the 4004 and the Skylake is the difference between computer behemoths that occupy whole basements and stylish little slabs 100,000 times more powerful that slip into a pocket. It is the difference between telephone systems operated circuit by circuit with bulky electromechanical switches and an internet that ceaselessly shuttles data packets around the world in their countless trillions. It is a difference that has changed everything from metal-bashing to foreign policy, from the booking of holidays to the designing of H-bombs. ... Moore’s law is not a law in the sense of, say, Newton’s laws of motion. But Intel, which has for decades been the leading maker of microprocessors, and the rest of the industry turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. ... That fulfilment was made possible largely because transistors have the unusual quality of getting better as they get smaller; a small transistor can be turned on and off with less power and at greater speeds than a larger one. ... “There’s a law about Moore’s law,” jokes Peter Lee, a vice-president at Microsoft Research: “The number of people predicting the death of Moore’s law doubles every two years.” ... making transistors smaller has no longer been making them more energy-efficient; as a result, the operating speed of high-end chips has been on a plateau since the mid-2000s ... while the benefits of making things smaller have been decreasing, the costs have been rising. This is in large part because the components are approaching a fundamental limit of smallness: the atom. ... One idea is to harness quantum mechanics to perform certain calculations much faster than any classical computer could ever hope to do. Another is to emulate biological brains, which perform impressive feats using very little energy. Yet another is to diffuse computer power rather than concentrating it, spreading the ability to calculate and communicate across an ever greater range of everyday objects in the nascent internet of things. ... in 2012 the record for maintaining a quantum superposition without the use of silicon stood at two seconds; by last year it had risen to six hours. ... For a quantum algorithm to work, the machine must be manipulated in such a way that the probability of obtaining the right answer is continually reinforced while the chances of getting a wrong answer are suppressed.
Engineers recognized that the increasing density of MOS transistors would eventually allow a complete computer processor to be put on a single chip. But because MOS transistors were slower than bipolar ones, a computer based on MOS chips made sense only when relatively low performance was required or when the apparatus had to be small and lightweight—such as for data terminals, calculators, or avionics. So those were the kinds of computing applications that ushered in the microprocessor revolution. ... Most engineers today are under the impression that the start of that revolution began in 1971 with Intel’s 4-bit 4004 and was immediately and logically followed by the company’s 8-bit 8008 chip. In fact, the story of the birth of the microprocessor is far richer and more surprising. In particular, some newly uncovered documents illuminate how a long-forgotten chip—Texas Instruments’ TMX 1795—beat the Intel 8008 to become the first 8-bit microprocessor, only to slip into obscurity.
Everyone knows that modern computers are better than old ones. But it is hard to convey just how much better, for no other consumer technology has improved at anything approaching a similar pace. The standard analogy is with cars: if the car from 1971 had improved at the same rate as computer chips, then by 2015 new models would have had top speeds of about 420 million miles per hour. ... There have been roughly 22 ticks of Moore’s law since the launch of the 4004 in 1971 through to mid-2016. For the law to hold until 2050 means there will have to be 17 more, in which case those engineers would have to figure out how to build computers from components smaller than an atom of hydrogen, the smallest element there is. ... a consensus among Silicon Valley’s experts that Moore’s law is near its end.