Exponential Technology

By Niki Ram

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Arthur Chait, Draper University, Spring 2019

Arthur Chait came by Draper University on Tuesday April 2nd and gave us a great overview of Silicon Valley and the power of Moore’s Law and exponential thinking.

Arthur himself is a seasoned entrepreneur and a scientist by training. He has had a long and illustrious career. What I loved about Arthur’s lecture was how flawlessly he explained the power of exponential technology and exponential thinking.

It’s easy to forget how, not that long ago, Silicon Valley was just farm land and yet we have made great technological advances in a short amount of time.

For example, the question he posed was what makes Silicon Valley so innovative? It’s the fact that entrepreneurship is valued, and bureaucracy isn’t. It’s the culture of risk-taking and there’s less of the stigma of failure. As opposed to other countries where if you were to fail it would be very difficult to get back on your feet because it may not have a culture where risk-taking is embraced.

And that silicon is an element, one of the purest substances ever used in history.

So what is Moore’s Law? Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a silicon chip doubles every 2 years.

What does that really mean?

Arthur took us on a journey to explain how the search for artificial light led to the light bulb and then to the vacuum tube, the transistor, the integrated circuit and ultimately the computer on a chip or CPU with billions of transistors all due to exponential technology. Along the way he told the story of how the quest for a clean burning fuel almost led to the extinction of sperm whales since oil from their skull cavities was considered a prized fuel. Ironically, kerosene which was refined from fossil fuel was an excellent replacement for sperm whale oil and saved the whales. But burning kerosene for light was still potentially dangerous and gave low light levels

The breakthrough was when Thomas Edison replaced kerosene lighting with electric light. Today lightbulbs are everywhere and so it’s easy to take them for granted. But Arthur pointed out what it took for a successful light bulb. For example, Edison had to find a filament that could withstand high temperatures and reportedly tried thousands of things before achieving success. Light bulbs also required, a vacuum to keep the filament from burning out too soon, a glass bulb to protect the filament and let light shine, and also a power supply and fixtures.

But light bulbs were not enough an entire ecosystem had to be created. For example, cities, homes and buildings had to be wired for the first time, equipment was needed to produce power, and companies were needed to sell and distribute power. The ecosystem also included all the installation and repair companies and even regulations.

Arthur then showed how experiments with lightbulbs led to vacuum tubes and how vacuum tubes allowed amplification, radio, TV and all sorts of electronics. Arthur showed a famous picture of Martin Luther King “The March on Washington”. This picture is where MLK addressed thousands of people with the I have a dream speech. Political rallies such as these would have been impossible without the amplification provided by vacuum tubes.

He goes on to explain the advent of transistors in 1947. Arthur passed transistors around, I felt they were really small but, thanks to Moore’s Law transistors have become smaller and smaller and today there are billions on a single chip, and you can’t even see them without a microscope. He then gave examples of how this exponential technology changed the world made every modern electric device possible.

Arthur explained that Moore’s Law cannot go on forever. Chip features may not be able to go below 5 nanometers since at that point they approach the size of individual atoms.

Exponential thinking reveals new opportunities. Such as Quantum computing, 3D architecture and different materials like carbon nanotubes.

Great talk, the takeaway I took from Arthur wasif we can better plan for the accelerating pace, we can ease the transition from one paradigm to the next, and greet the future in stride.