concepts are essential for understanding this remarkable progress. The first, Moore’s Law, is well-known: it is an expansion of an observation made by Gordon Moore, cofounder of microprocessor maker Intel. In a 1965 article in Electronics magazine, Moore noted that the number of transistors in a minimum-cost integrated circuit had been doubling every 12 months, and he predicted that this rate of improvement would continue into the future. 7 When this proved to be the case, Moore’s Law was born. Later modifications changed the time required for the doubling to occur; the most widely accepted period at present is 18 months. 8 Variations of Moore’s Law have been applied to improvement over time in disk drive capacity, display resolution, network bandwidth and, most recently, energy consumption. 9 In these and many other cases of digital improvement, doubling happens both quickly and reliably. It also seems that software can progress at least as fast as hardware does, at least in some domains. Computer scientist Martin Grötschel analyzed the speed with which a standard optimization problem could be solved by computers during 1988-2003. He documented a 43-million-fold improvement, which he broke down into two factors: faster processors and better algorithms embedded in software. Processor speeds improved by a factor of 1,000, but those gains were dwarfed by the algorithms, which got 43,000 times better over the same period. 10 The second concept relevant for understanding recent computing advances is closely related to Moore’s Law. It comes from an ancient story about math made relevant to the present age by the innovator and futurist Ray Kurzweil. In one version of the story, the inventor of the game of chess shows his creation to his country’s ruler. The emperor is so delighted by the game that he allows the inventor to name his own reward. The clever man asks for a quantity of rice, to be determined as follows: one grain of rice is placed on the first square of the chessboard, two grains on the second, four on the third, and so on, with each square receiving twice as many grains as the previous square. The emperor agrees, thinking that this reward is too small. He soon sees, however, that the constant doubling results in tremendously large numbers. The inventor winds up with 2 -1 grains of rice, or a pile bigger than Mount Everest. In some versions of the story, the emperor is so displeased at being outsmarted that he beheads the inventor. In his 2000 book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence , Kurzweil notes that the pile of rice is not that exceptional on the first half of the chessboard: After thirty-two squares, the emperor had given the inventor about 4 billion grains of rice. That’s a reasonable quantity — about one large field’s worth — and the emperor did start to take notice.
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- Spring '08
- MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan Management Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, mit sloan management