With the debut of technology theories like the technological singularity and the realization of “the internet of things” on the horizon, there has been clamorous panic among technocrats as they debate whether we can continue to accurately predict or control technological advancement. The optic we have used to predict computational power for the last fifty years or so has been Moore’s Law. Without getting into the highly intellectualized rigmarole of digital electronics, Moore’s law reads like this, “the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years” but is interpreted to read like this, ” the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years increasing computational power or performance exponentially without diminishing returns”.
How did we get here? a simple thought experiment called the Sand Heap Paradox can be used to put things in perspective. We have a heap of sand and we continuously remove one grain from it. The change in the size of the heap is nominal, so much so that we fail to realize that it is reducing in size, although very slow and on a miniscule scale. Fast forward a few years and there is only a single grain of sand left and no heap. Think of the end of Moore’s law as the moment we realize that there isn’t an infinite amount of sand available and that all predictions have their limits. Sand of course is almost poetic in our case since silica is used to make silicon which is a key ingredient found in every microprocessor transistor.
This is where we find ourselves. The number of transistors you can cram into a chip can’t increase forever because of the physical limitations of silicon based chips. Some research is suggesting that this was already the case at 28nm(nanometer) but microprocessor giant Intel reported a 14nm achievement in 2014. The biggest hurdle to keep shrinking transistors to tiny atomic sizes is heat and leakage. At 5nm the laws of physics turn the chip into a frying pan and quantum mechanics at that size scrambles the atom and disrupts information flow (ability for signals to travel through a logic gate on a silicon wafer in a coordinated fashion). So Moore’s law falls short at postulating leaps in computational power primarily because the axiom is untenable at a certain size and that limit is fast approaching. Cutting edge research is instead looking at quantum and molecular computing to foster in the new paradigm for processing power with post silicon transistors. In this TED talk Ray Kurzweil gives the silicon based transistors another 10 years before we reach the performance apex. I need to mention that Kurweil has an impeccable history of predicting trends in technology. Renowned futurist Michio Kaku also echoes Kurzweil’s sentiments. The more closely we examine Moore’s law or its inaccurate interpretation the more it appears that it is a rule of “dumb” or self-fulfilling prophesy that merely coincided with Intel’s success in the microprocessor industry, Moore’s law for any scientific purposes is already dead and is only used purely for marketing purposes. So really the question is not whether Moore’s law is still valid, but for how long it will be be the conceptual framework we use to fuel our postulations of computational processing, pundits say 10 years but add on some reverse engineering with 3D transistor arrangement and we have roughly fifty years more.
In conclusion the debate on Moore’s law can be polarized into two camps, those that think computational power on silicon based transistors will keep increasing forever under the Moore paradigm and those that think the days of increasing computational power using silicon based transistors are numbered. Now you’re probably wondering whether all of this matters to you as a consumer, the answer is it probably doesn’t but the next paradigm which we think of to conceptualize computational performance leaps will probably give rise to greater computational power. When we move from Moore’s law and believe me we will, this will punctuate a transformation of our technological civilization. Think positronic brains and human like interactions with virtual personas. The silver lining on the dark cloud of Moore’s law might be as Ray Kurzweil puts it, that
“the dwindling of any paradigm is that it creates research pressure to come up with another paradigm that improves on and supplants the previous paradigm”.
Moshe Y. Vardi who wrote an article (Is Moore’s Party Over?) also seems to agree, adding that the death of Moore’s law will plunge us into a time when we will have to become creative with algorithms and systems in order to leverage the stagnation. Exponential growth of computing power under Moore’s law will definitely slow, perhaps to continue under molecular computing or some other far out concept.That is it for now, time to retire Moore’s law to the same place we put Ptolemaic planetary theories.
You can read Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s original paper here
Occulus Rift is another one of those technologies I simply can’t say enough about. Virtual reality or VR has been a tripodal technology for the last two decades, staggering onwards as it struggles to find its place in gaming. So what is it about Occulus Rift as a virtual technology that is breathing new life into VR?
Rift is as I have chosen to call it due to its disruptive effects is a head-mounted display headset designed for immersive gaming. This means that it’s a contraption that you strap to your head to deliver a realistic virtual experience by looking through two lenses through which parallel images are distorted and projected. In principle the ocular experience of the Rift is similar to that of old stereoscopes. The kind you’d hold up to your eyes as a kid to see banal images of leaping ponies. To amuse yourself have a gander at one of the earliest attempts of the VR movement, The Sword Damocles.
As I alluded to earlier, Rift is a new product in a long line of VR head-mounted displays (HMD). Until now the most successful was probably Forte’s VFX-1 HDM that came out in the 90s. Most of the VR technologies never hit the shores of Namibia in the same way MS Flight Simulator joysticks and Golden China consoles did. Fortunately we didn’t miss out on much as earlier VR technologies failed in their native markets because they were too expensive, badly designed or posed as serious health risk in the same way people are prone to unintentional self-harm during a hallucinogenic trip.
Let’s avoid the technical brilliance that has made Rift a success and instead focus on the practicalities that are essentials for this kind of fun game design. The rift not much unlike its predecessors is svelte and weighs little despite its bulky appearance (370g). I had the pleasure of trying out an early prototype at a snowboarding expo and the headset doesn’t cause any more discomfort than you would experience wearing a hat. The thing that really sets it apart is low latency. The visual response to your head movements is almost instantaneous. Rift’s other compelling feature is its price. This is the most affordable and accessible advanced VR technology has ever been. The Rift is currently fetching for U$300 although I’d probably wait for a more consumer friendly version if I were you.
Looking at the winning factors of Rift you will realize that it’s not so much the features of the Rift that have made it a success but the fact that world has never been this ready for VR. There has been a convergence of virtual technology design and growing hobbyist\hacker subculture to go with it. That and the fact that software, hardware processing power and information are so readily available is why the Rift is our new light in the dark. VR is back in the hands of the gamers. I think just about everyone else abandoned VR while Palmer Luckey slaved away into the night. By the time people realized the implications of this technology and the temporal ripeness of the technology ecosystem, it was already too late. Luckey had emerged from his lair with the eyes of the future.
Occulus has made its SDK (free) and dev kit (to buy) publicly available which means slews of hackers are going to tinker with it the same way they tinkered with Kinect. Although Rift is the sole contender in the VR race right now, the scale of its success will largely depend on how much the gaming development community want to include it as part of the normal gaming experience. It will also hinge on the extent gaming interfaces are willing to compliment the Rift. So far Valve has committed to adopting Rift for Team Fortress 2, Portal and Half Life 2. I myself would delight at the chance to take a virtual trip around the world of Skyrim or the lush jungles of Far Cry 3. Rift or VR is not without detractors, head mounted displays have received their fair share of flak, watch this panel of VC entrepreneurs tear Virtuix’s Omni treadmill a new one on Shark Tank.
There are physiological concerns that come with using Rift. Motion sickness and other adverse reactions need to be considered before Rift is rolled out to the masses. I can already hear the cacophony of angry mothers and girlfriends (or boyfriends) complaining about how the Rift trivialises the normal human experience. As exciting as the Rift might sound, I think locally we will see the same meagre penetration as Kinect. It will be a niche product for the rich and really techie before the kwaitos and the FIFA jocks jump on the bandwagon