Is Moore's Law dead? Why do chip giants Intel and Nvidia hold their own?

As the golden rule of the semiconductor industry, Moore's Law has been guiding chip development. However, this law is being called into question as the pace of upgrades to chip processes slows. Moore's Law was coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in the 1960s, and it's mainly about the number of transistors on a chip. Moore said the number of transistors on a chip will double every other year, increasing processing power. To increase the number of transistors on a chip, transistors must be made smaller, which requires improved manufacturing techniques.

Now, the two most important US semiconductor companies, Intel and Nvidia, are at odds over the pace of chip development and whether Moore's Law still applies.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger said at a company briefing on Tuesday that Moore's Law "still works. " But Nvidia co-founder and CEO Jensen Huang said last week that Moore's Law is dead. Nvidia's current market cap is more than three times Intel's.

“The brute force-plus-transistor approach and the progress of Moore’s Law have basically come to an end,” Jen-Hsun Huang told investors last week at the launch of the new product.

Intel's abacus

The disagreement underscores the difference in strategy between Intel and other U.S. semiconductor companies. Intel has pledged to continue producing some of its chips in-house, while companies such as Nvidia rely largely on third-party foundries outside the United States to make chips.

Intel has been a leader in semiconductor manufacturing technology for years, consistently producing chips with the highest transistor density in the world. But in recent years, Intel has been overtaken by TSMC and Samsung, which can currently produce processors containing 5nm transistors, while Intel remains stuck on 10nm and 7nm technologies.

After Kissinger took over, one of Intel's core corporate goals was to return to "performance leadership," meaning Intel's chips needed to be as fast and efficient as those made by third-party foundries. Intel hopes to increase production capacity by 5 "nodes" , or 5 transistor sizes, within 4 years to catch up. In general, it usually takes two years to introduce a new node containing smaller transistors.

So Intel needs Moore's Law to continue as the company is still actively trying to cram more transistors into a single chip. However, the size of a transistor has its limits, and when a transistor is small enough, it encounters physical problems. At Tuesday's briefing, Kissinger called the moment "a day of reckoning."

Kissinger said Intel is working to advance manufacturing process advancements, such as new lithography and RibbonFET architecture, which allow the company to continue to cram more transistors per chip, even if they get small enough, Small enough to be measured in Angstrom (0.1 nanometers) units.

"We want to start with about 100 billion transistors on a single package today and get to a trillion transistors in a single package by the end of this decade," Kissinger said. "We're on track."

Nvidia ditches Moore's Law

By contrast, Nvidia's latest processors are produced by TSMC, which currently has the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology and is the world's largest chip maker. Nvidia designs chips, but isn't too concerned about manufacturing.

Nvidia's solution to the engineering challenge of making smaller transistors is not Moore's Law, but what Jen-Hsun Huang calls "accelerated computing." In his vision, intensive applications like artificial intelligence could run on the specific processors that best handle those tasks, which are the graphics processors developed by Nvidia. In other words, industry demand for Intel's expertise has diminished.

"Looking ahead, the opportunity to continue to take advantage of the Moore's Law price-performance curve is over," said Jen-Hsun Huang, "So, if you want to do large-scale computing in a cost-effective way, after 15 to nearly 20 years of pursuing accelerated computing, I am It would almost become conventional wisdom to think that, in general, accelerated computing is the real way forward.”

Intel released new chips and software on Tuesday as it tries to recover from years of slumping performance and profits. Intel's stock has fallen 28% over the past five years, while Nvidia's has risen more than 180% (even after a 58% drop in 2022).

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