September 20, 2016

Computers Allow Us To Accomplish More With Less, and It's Only Getting Better

By Marian L. Tupy
Researchers have just developed a way to fit yet more transistors into less space, creating an even more efficient computer chip. The breakthrough is good news for "Moore's Law," or the idea that the number of transistors per square inch of an integrated circuit board will double every two years.

Computers have come a long way since the days of ENIAC. The first computer was a $6-million-dollar giant that stretched eight feet tall and 80 feet long, weighed 30 tons and needed frequent down time to replace failing vacuum tubes. A modern smart phone, in contrast, possesses about 13 hundred times the power of ENIAC and can fit in your pocket. It also costs about 17 thousand times less. (With a deal like that, no wonder that there are now more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people on the planet).

The drop-off in the price of computing power is so steep that it's difficult to comprehend. A megabyte of computer memory cost 400 million dollars in 1957. That's a hefty price tag, even before taking inflation into account. In 2013 dollars, that would be 2.6 billion. In 2015, a megabyte of memory cost about one cent.
The cost of both RAM (roughly analogous to short-term memory) and hard drive storage (long-term memory) has plummeted. Consider the progress just since 1980. In that time, the cost of a gigabyte of RAM fell from over 6 million dollars to less than five dollars; a gigabyte of hard drive storage fell from over 400 thousand dollars to three cents.Whether you're reading this article on a smart phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer, please take a moment to appreciate how incredible that device truly is. Ever more powerful, compact and affordable computers make our lives more convenient and connected than our ancestors could have ever imagined.

They also enable a process called dematerialization—they allow us to produce and accomplish more with less. The benefits to the economy, the environment and human wellbeing are incalculable. If Moore's Law holds true, regulators stay out of the way, and outdated privacy laws catch up to the current technological realities, then things are only going to get better.

This article first appeared in Reason.