Life lessons from Gordon Moore, the man behind Silicon Valley's most famous law

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You may never have heard the name "Gordon Moore" but you likely know the famous technology 'law' named for him. Moore predicted 50 years ago that the number of transistors on a chip would increase exponentially, doubling roughly every two years. Known as Moore's Law, the dictum that tech performance will double every two years has made us anxious every time we commit to a new laptop knowing it will be half as good as what's on the market before we've had a chance to wear out its keyboard.

Moore's Law has held up over the last half century as a way to understand tech innovation, and so on Monday night, people packed into the Exploratorium in San Francisco to celebrate the man behind it. Moore, now 86, was in attendance and interviewed on stage by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. He looked a bit frail, but his ideas were sharp as ever.

Moore did not come up with his law from within the ivory towers of academia. He was in the tech weeds in the early days of Silicon Valley's growth, back when the Valley was named for the hardware it was producing. In 1964, the trade journal Electronics pinged Moore who was the director of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductors to write an article for its 35th anniversary issue. Moore had been thinking for some time about how the company's products—integrated circuits, the building blocks of computer chips—would change the world. This was an opportunity to put his theories into words, with the headline, "Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits."


Four years later, in 1968, Moore ventured off with Bob Noyce to help put his law into action, co-founding Intel, a company that became the most successful chip manufacturer in the world. Fifty years on, many of the things Moore foresaw have come to pass and his writings have become the equivalent of Silicon Valley dogma. There are physicists and academics who have said in recent years that Moore's Law is beginning to collapse, and that tech innovation will have to slow down due to materials constraints, but it hasn't happened yet.

"There are all kinds of barriers we're always thinking are going to prevent us from taking the next step, and somehow or other, as we get closer, the engineers have figured out ways around it," he said. "But someday it has to stop. No exponential like this can go on forever."

Moore is still considered one of Silicon Valley's most influential figures. It was inspiring to hear him talk. He was humble, gracious and funny. These are the five most important things I took away from Friedman's interview of Moore.

1. Don't be a lemming.

When asked what kind of startup he'd start today, Moore answered like a boss:

I have a different view of startups from many people doing it today. To me, you have to have an idea for a product that has some uniqueness in the market — that's essential.


Starting a company just because the market is hot is probably not the best reason, but the advice, I think, is germane to more than just entrepreneurs looking to found new companies. To succeed at anything, you have to be able to differentiate yourself from the pack — to offer your customers (or readers) something they can't get anywhere else. Be essential. Words to live by.

2. Play.

Moore got interested in science by playing with his neighbor's chemistry kit. "We would make explosives," he said. He even had a home lab, where he'd tinker and play scientist. "That really caught my early interest. You couldn't duplicate that today, but there are other opportunities." Yup, today you could be thrown in jail for such things, but his greater point is that experimenting and playing can help you discover what you're passionate about.


3. Embrace your ignorance.

Moore made some pretty epic predictions in 1965, when Moore's law was first published. "Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computers—or at least terminals connected to a central computer—automatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today," he wrote in the original paper.


But things like microwave popcorn, social networking, the importance of the internet and Google alerts, he didn't see coming. "I couldn't have imagined something like that coming out, and let alone being free," he joked about Google's free notifications.

It's easy to feel pressured into pretending like you've got a pulse on everything. Answers are just a Google search away, after all. Admitting when you're clueless about something can be tough and downright humbling, but it can often lead to more interesting—and human— interactions.


4. Put $$$ into scientific research.

Without science, real innovation can't happen. Moore's own success, he said, hinged on investments the government made into quantum mechanics and other types of basic research. In recent times, the funding for science has started to wane, as other countries have ramped up spending for life sciences and robotics research. .


"I'm disappointed that the government seems to be decreasing the support of basic research," he said. "Our position in the world in fundamental science has deteriorated pretty badly."

5. Make efforts to create the world you want to live in.

We've seen "See something. Do something." messages printed all over subway cars, but in Moore's case it takes a different meaning. He and his wife used to enjoy fishing, and they'd travel the world looking for remote places to fish. After some time, they started noticing that from one year to the next the places they'd visit were almost unrecognizable: a development would sprout where rain forest used to be, for instance.


"We thought something ought to be done to preserve some of the wildlife," he said. So through the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the couple has funded conservation efforts throughout the world.

Many of us don't have the kinds of deep pockets to do fund large-scale projects, but we can take notice of things going on around us—piece of trash on the street or a leaky faucet—and do something about it.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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