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How Small Can They Go? IBM Announces 7 Nanometer Computer Chip


IBM announced yesterday that a coalition of researchers has built the world's first computer chip featuring transistors just seven nanometers wide. Get that - nanometers - very, very tiny. Smaller transistors means more powerful chips, which means, in turn, smaller, more powerful devices, like smartphones. Developments like this come approximately every two years. It's what's known as Moore's Law. We sent MORNING EDITION producer Rachel Ward to find out more.

RACHEL WARD, BYLINE: When I have to look into something sciencey, I take a very quick shortcut. I go directly to where my colleague Adam Cole sits. He's a science reporter here at NPR and he's the curator of the Skunk Bear Tumblr. Adam, help me. What is Moore's Law? Who was Moore?

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: So Gordon Moore is one of the co-founders of Intel. And in 1965, he made this observation that it seemed like transistors were getting smaller and smaller at an exponential rate. He said every two years about you'll be able to fit twice as many transistors on a chip.

WARD: So the transistors are getting smaller. The chips are getting smaller. Did this two-year prediction pan out? Was Moore right?

COLE: It turns out, you know, for the last 50 years he's pretty much been spot on. And it's - it's turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy because companies like IBM and Intel, they'll set goals based on this law of how small they want their transistors to be. And just to give you a sense of just how dramatic this exponential shrinking is, I'm going to give you a little metaphor.


COLE: So let's say the transistors that are around when Moore first made this prediction back in 1965, those were about 100th of an inch wide. But let's blow that up, so it's now the size of Shea Stadium, host of the famous 1965 Beatles concert.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Here are The Beatles.


COLE: So we've blown up this tiny transistor to a huge stadium. Now let's go to 1971. That transistor has shrunk down to the size of a Volkswagen van.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There you go.

WARD: And this is tape...

COLE: This is a 1971 Volkswagen van.


COLE: OK, so now by the year 2000, this transistor will have shrunk to the size of a little iPod.


WARD: Oh, and this is the click wheel - the classic...

COLE: The classic click wheel of the 2000 iPod.

WARD: OK, it's year 2000. We're the size of the iPod.

COLE: Now let's go to 2015 to this new chip just announced by IBM that is so, so small...


COLE: ...It's as if you took these two pennies that I just dropped and held them between your fingers. That width is the size of the transistor in this metaphor. And in reality, that transistor is now just a few times bigger than a strand of DNA.

WARD: So Moore's Law has been upheld.

COLE: For now. There's a lot of skeptics who think maybe this won't happen again, but they've been saying that for decades.

WARD: OK, Adam Cole, NPR science reporter and curator of Skunk Bear, I'm going to call you again in two years and we're going to see.

COLE: Sounds like a plan.

MONTAGNE: That's MORNING EDITION producer Rachel Ward with NPR's Adam Cole. And you can follow Adam on Twitter - @NPRskunkbear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel M. Ward and Adam Cole