I Can’t Drive 55 — The New York Times and Moore’s Law

Yesterday the New York Times published an article about Moore’s Law.  While interesting in that John Markoff, who is the Times science writer, speculates that in about 5 years the computing industry will be “manipulating material as small as atoms” and therefore may hit a wall in what has become a back of the envelope calculation of the multiplicative nature of computing complexity and power in the silicon age.

This article prompted a follow on from Brian Feldman at NY Mag, that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has anticipated a broader definition of the phenomenon of the accelerating rate of computing power to take into account quantum computing.  Note here that the definition used in this context is the literal one: the doubling of the number of transistors over time that can be placed on a microchip.  That is a correct summation of what Gordon Moore said, but it not how Moore’s Law is viewed or applied within the tech industry.

Moore’s Law (which is really a rule of thumb or guideline in lieu of an ironclad law) has been used, instead, as a analogue to describe the geometric acceleration that has been seen in computer power over the last 50 years.  As Moore originally described the phenomenon, the doubling of transistors occurred every two years.  Then it was revised later to occur about every 18 months or so, and now it is down to 12 months or less.  Furthermore, aside from increasing transistors, there are many other parallel strategies that engineers have applied to increase speed and performance.  When we combine the observation of Moore’s Law with other principles tied to the physical world, such as Landauer’s Principle and Information Theory, we begin to find a coherence in our observations that are truly tied to physics.  Thus, rather than being a break from Moore’s Law (and the observations of these other principles and theory noted above), quantum computing, to which the articles refer, sits on a continuum rather than a break with these concepts.

Bottom line: computing, memory, and storage systems are becoming more powerful, faster, and expandable.

Thus, Moore’s Law in terms of computing power looks like this over time:

Moore's Law Chart

Furthermore, when we calculate the cost associated with erasing a bit of memory we begin to approach identifying the Demon* in defying the the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Moore's Law Cost Chart

Note, however, that the Second Law is not really being defied, it is just that we are constantly approaching zero, though never actually achieving it.  But the principle here is that the marginal cost associated with each additional bit of information become vanishingly small to the point of not passing the “so what” test, at least in everyday life.  Though, of course, when we get to neural networks and strong AI such differences are very large indeed–akin to mathematics being somewhat accurate when we want to travel from, say, San Francisco to London, but requiring more rigor and fidelity when traveling from Kennedy Space Center to Gale Crater on Mars.

The challenge, then, in computing is to be able to effectively harness such power.  Our current programming languages and operating environments are only scratching the surface of how to do this, and the joke in the industry is that the speed of software is inversely proportional to the advance in computing power provided by Moore’s Law.  The issue is that our brains, and thus the languages we harness to utilize computational power, are based in an analog understanding of the universe, while the machines we are harnessing are digital.  For now this knowledge can only build bad software and robots, but given our drive into the brave new world of heuristics, may lead us to Skynet and the AI apocalypse if we are not careful–making science fiction, once again, science fact.

Back to present time, however, what this means is that for at least the next decade, we will see an acceleration of the ability to use more and larger sets of data.  The risks, that we seem to have to relearn due to a new generation of techies entering the market which lack a well rounded liberal arts education, is that the basic statistical and scientific rules in the conversion, interpretation, and application of intelligence and information can still be roundly abused and violated.  Bad management, bad decision making, bad leadership, bad mathematics, bad statisticians, specious logic, and plain old common human failings are just made worse, with greater impact on more people, given the misuse of that intelligence and information.

The watchman against these abuses, then, must be incorporated into the solutions that use this intelligence and information.  This is especially critical given the accelerated pace of computing power, and the greater interdependence of human and complex systems that this acceleration creates.

*Maxwell’s Demon

Note:  I’ve defaulted to the Wikipedia definitions of both Landauer’s Principle and Information Theory for the sake of simplicity.  I’ve referenced more detailed work on these concepts in previous posts and invite readers to seek those out in the archives of this blog.

Super Doodle Dandy (Software) — Decorator Crabs and Wirth’s Law


The song (absent the “software” part) in the title is borrowed from the soundtrack of the movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet.  Made in the day before Pixar and other recent animation technologies, it remains a largely unappreciated classic; combining photography and animation in a time of more limited tools, but with Don Knotts creating another unforgettable character beyond Barney Fife.  Somewhat related to what I am about to write, Mr. Limpet taught the creatures of the sea new ways of doing things, helping them overcome their mistaken assumptions about the world.

The photo that opens this post is courtesy of the Monterey Aquarium and looks to be the crab Oregonia gracilis, commonly referred to as the Graceful Decorator Crab.  There are all kinds of Decorator Crabs, most of which belong to the superfamily Majoidea.  The one I most often came across and raised in aquaria was Libinia dubia, an east coast cousin.  You see, back in a previous lifetime I had aspirations to be a marine biologist.  My early schooling was based in the sciences and mathematics.  Only later did I gradually gravitate to history, political science, and the liberal arts–finally landing in acquisition and high tech project management, which tends to borrow something from all of these disciplines.  I believe that my former concentration of studies have kept me grounded in reality–in viewing life the way it is and the mysteries that are yet to be solved in the universe absent resort to metaphysics or irrationality–while the latter concentrations have connected me to the human perspective in experiencing and recording existence.

But there is more to my analogy than self-explanation.  You see, software development exhibits much of the same behavior of Decorator Crabs.

In my previous post I talk about Moore’s Law and the compounding (doubling) of greater processor power in computing every 12 to 24 months.  (It does not seem to be as much a physical law as an observation, and we can only guess how long this trend will continue).  We also see a corresponding reduction in cost vis-à-vis this greater capability.  Yet, despite these improvements, we find that software often lags behind and fails to leverage this capability.

The observation that has recorded this phenomenon is found in Wirth’s Law, which posits that software is getting slower at a faster rate than computer hardware is getting faster.  There are two variants of this law, one ironic and the other only less so.  These are May’s and Gates’ variants.  Basically these posit that software speed halves every 18 months, thereby negating Moore’s Law.  But why is this?

For first causes one need only look to the Decorator Crab.  You see, the crab, all by itself, is a typical crab: an arthropod invertebrate with a hard carapace, spikes on its exoskeleton, segmented body with jointed limbs, five pairs of legs, the first pair of legs usually containing chelae (the familiar pincers and claws).  There are all kinds of crabs in salt, fresh, and brackish water.  They tend to be well adapted to their environment.  But they are also tasty and high in protein value, thus having a number of predators.  So the Decorator Crab has determined that what evolution has provided is not enough–it borrows features and items from its environment to enhance its capabilities as a defense mechanism.  There is a price to being a Decorator Crab.  Encrustations also become encumbrances.  Where crabs have learned to enhance their protections, for example by attaching toxic sponges and anemones, these enhancements may also have made them complaisant because, unlike most crabs, Decorator Crabs don’t tend to scurry from crevice to crevice, but tend to walk awkwardly and more slowing than many of their cousins in the typical sideways crab gait.  This behavior makes them interesting, popular, and comical subjects in both public and private aquaria.

In a way, we see an analogy in the case of software.  In earlier generations of software design, applications were generally built to solve a particular challenge that mimicked the line and staff structure of the organizations involved–designed to fit its environmental niche.  But over time, of course, people decide that they want enhancements and additional features.  The user interface, when hardcoded, must be adjusted every time a new function or feature is added.

Rather than rewriting the core code from scratch–which will take time and resource-consuming reengineering and redesign of the overall application–modules, subroutines, scripts, etc. are added to software to adapt to the new environment.  Over time, software takes on the characteristics of the Decorator Crab.  The new functions are not organic to the core structure of the software, just as the attached anemone, sponges, and algae are not organic features of the crab.  While they may provide the features desired, they are not optimized, tending to use brute force computing power as the means of accounting for lack of elegance.  Thus, the more powerful each generation of hardware computing power tends to provide, the less effective each enhancement release of software tends to be.

Furthermore, just as when a crab tends to look less like a crab, it requires more effort and intelligence to identify the crab, so too with software.  The greater the encrustation of features that tend to attach themselves to an application, the greater the effort that is required to use those new features.  Learning the idiosyncrasies of the software is an unnecessary barrier to the core purposes of software–to increase efficiency, improve productivity, and improve speed.  It serves only one purpose: to increase the “stickiness” of the application within the organization so that it is harder to displace by competitors.

It is apparent that this condition is not sustainable–or acceptable–especially where the business environment is changing.  New software generations, especially Fourth Generation software, provide opportunities to overcome this condition.

Thus, as project management and acquisition professionals, the primary considerations that must be taken into account are optimization of computing power and the related consideration of sustainability.  This approach militates against complacency because it influences the environment of software toward optimization.  Such an approach will also allow organizations to more fully realize the benefits of Moore’s Law.