Sunday, 3 February 2013

Valves, Transistors and Moore's law – Have we reached human limits?

It was an imposing radio, a wooden cabinet with circuitry built on a chassis, and it was a valve radio. My grandmother kept it going till finally it became difficult to thread the string to the huge pulley of the gang-condenser! When you turned it on, the valve glowed red indicating that the set was on. Then came my grandmother's Weston Black and White T.V.set. It also ran on valves and frequently kept breaking down what with the valves failing constantly. Finally the T.V.Mechanic offered to convert the circuitry to a Solid State one, which meant replacing the entire circuit board with one based on transistors.The switch from valves to transistors meant better performance, better life, and lower power consumption. My father boasted about his National RF-4000 radio saying that it had twenty-four Transistors and so was one of the best!  The use of transistors instead of valves meant better performance, reliability and compactness.  The amount of heat produced by the valves, limited output, large size limiting portability of the gadget, and the fact that they consumed a lot of power spelled their doom!
The transistor came in different types and shapes, NPN, PNP, and the larger power transistors. The power transistors were often found at the rear of the amplifier where they were attached in clear view. The late seventies and early eighties were all about transistors and then came the switch to Integrated Chips, ICs. These were diminutive chips which contained a large number of transistors all inside a tiny oblong or square chip with legs protruding which could be soldered on the circuit board. That these tiny chips contained so many transistors was mind boggling. What followed was a process of miniaturization which was mind boggling! Smaller and smaller audio systems began to come on the the market,  and even the tiniest audio systems could pump out those magical PMPO Watts which was boldly advertised by colorful stickers pasted on the front.
It is surprising to know that most of  our mobile phones have more computing power than the computers that handled the Apollo space missions in the seventies. The degree of miniaturization has reached a stage where the number of transistors on a particular chip continues to double almost every two years. This unrelenting pace has been going for some time now resulting in products becoming obsolete very fast. That mobile you bought six months back is obsolete today! I guess now we have entered the use and throw age where things are meant to be kept only for a brief period of time. The sentimental value of things you buy is a thing of the past because today you don’t keep your gadgets long enough to form a sentimental attachment with it!
This pace of development in electronics might however pose serious problems for all of us human beings. It is a matter of fact that we as human beings cannot keep pace with advancements taking place in the electronic industry. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on an integrated board will double every two years (approximately 18 months). This in itself points towards the doubling of processing power, doubling of memory space, and of course computing power. My first computer had a hard disk with a memory  of 760 megabytes and today we are talking about terabytes! It is frightening, isn’t it? The information surfeit is so great that we can’t  handle it, this is because as human beings we have limitations in filtering the amount of information that we can process. The result is a generation exposed to stress resulting from the daunting task of filtering and processing a large amount of data, most of which is of no use! While no doubt it took us human beings millennia to evolve, for transistors however this is not the case. While the computing power of computers and hand-held devices is doubling every two years, we however are not able to keep pace with the computers and mobile phones. The advent of artificial intelligence ( I.E.) and electronic intelligence are a possibility that may soon become a reality.
Researchers however believe that Moore’s Law might work only till 2015-2020 when the doubling of the number of transistors will slow down to once in three years. To keep up with Moore’s Law, engineers have to keep shrinking the size of the transistor and a time could come when it would no longer be physically possible to continue doing so! Faced by physical constraints, engineers did manage to introduce tri-gate transistors. It seems, therefore that engineers might soon be reaching the limits of Moore’s Laws due to physical constraints and the lack of predictability with regard to determining the exact position of the electron. Quantum Physics stresses this lack of determinism at the sub-atomic level. The limits of Silicon will soon be reached forcing scientists to find alternative materials which will allow smaller transistors, gates and switches to be in place.
Of course it means that soon we will reach the end of an era which began with valves, moved on to individual transistors soldered on to circuit boards and finally ends in  printed transistors on a microscopic chip. This all means that we as human beings should be prepared for yet another electronic revolution ushering an era of even more computing power in an age when silicon chip becomes obsolete. The introduction of nano-technology based on the principles of Quantum Physics will pose various challenges to us as human beings. Does it mean that that soon machines will be too powerful to handle and we will require a human interface to handle them or else be burned by the powerful electronics? This in itself would herald the era of virtual life such as that shown in the film, The Matrix. A Matrix type of life would rob human beings of their essential humanity, turning them into mere bricks in the wall of a large, powerful electronic computer!

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