Thursday, November 29, 2007

MOORE’S LAW AND THE END OF THE COLD WAR

An important reason why life has changed so dramatically for so many of us, and in such a short span of time, is the spectacular progress achieved in the world of computers and technology. In 1965, Geoffrey Moore predicted (in words to the effect) that every two years, there would be a doubling in the processing power of computer chips. This is now known as Moore’s law and it has broadly held true ever since.

As much as this law is about the exponential growth of computing power, I also believe it is about the power of human enterprise, initiative and open markets, united by freedom and undivided by borders, to deliver results far beyond what the human imagination can realistically conceive.

I like to imagine how this law would have played out in the former Soviet Union. Here is my guess about the likely scenario. To begin with, all research into computers, microchips, semi conductors etc. would be centralised at the massive, publicly funded, V I Lenin Institute for Information Technology, employing an army of scientists, bureaucrats and assorted hangers-on.

At the beginning of the year, the Director of the institute would receive a mail from the country’s planning commission setting out the targets to be achieved in the various areas. The planning commission would, very likely, have set ambitious targets for the growth to be achieved by the economy as a whole and also the various sectors within it. So, if the country is to grow at 8 percent, it would make sense to demand that the Institute deliver chips with a processing power 12 percent, 15 percent and maybe even 20 percent (the sheer ambition!) more than what was achieved the year before.

Assuming that the institute functions like any other government run establishment, it would likely end up at the year-end achieving an increase somewhat short of the given target. Also, they would work hard on good, scientifically plausible excuses as to why the entire target could not be met. Of course, it is also conceivable that the scientists at the institute are fully aware of the true potential in this field (unlike the planning commission mandarins), and actually achieve a 40 percent increase. But then, they choose to deliver only 20 percent for now, in order that the next year’s target becomes a breeze, when they can sit back and relax and yet deliver the plan target.

The reader is welcome to think of alternative scenarios but it is unlikely that the Institute (or the wider research establishment in a command economy) would have delivered double the processing power every two years and that too over a span of three to four decades. Not surprisingly, Moore’s Law under central planning would then have been a doubling of processing power not every two years as in a free economy, but perhaps every four years, or more, and with no warranty about the bugs.

With this kind of difference, and over the course of a decade or two, it is quite likely that staggering differences in the processing power would have opened up between the western chip and the Soviet version. I have long suspected that one of the reasons why the Soviet economy fell significantly behind its western peers  a process beginning in the mid-70’s, and really the basic reason for its collapse  was the shortage of computing power for day to day economic activities. In order to compete militarily with the west, the Soviet economy would necessarily have had to reserve the major chunk of its best computers for military uses like designing warplanes and missiles. This would have starved the civilian sector which would then have been forced to rely on inferior alternatives like the humble calculator or even the pencil and paper (with assistance from the good old logarithm tables).

Of course, such a view would run counter to the established wisdom in the west, cherished particularly by the Republican right-wing in America, that the Soviet Union bled to death because it could not keep up with the quantum jump in military expenditure during the Reagan years. Add to this, the huge cost of fighting the unending war in Afghanistan (where the insurgency was armed and funded by the CIA), and it became the final tipping point. From the Republican perspective, this is all very convenient. You can now follow up with the claim that Reagan was the (Republican) President who won the cold war for the west. And from this point, it is only a short walk to putting a halo around his head.

I must say that even as I disagree with the Republicans on this one, I also sympathise with the view. It does convey the desirable impression that the cold war was won the hard way, the macho way, by standing up to the enemy and not blinking. As for my view (admittedly less popular), it has to be said that Moore’s law would likely have held true irrespective of the actions of the American government and its military, and without heed to the billions they spent on armaments. After all, it draws its momentum from the efficiency and otherwise inherent superiority of the capitalist economy, and not from orders barked out by someone wearing the Pentagon’s stripes.

An admission, therefore, that the cold war was really won by Moore’s Law holding true over a couple of decades and more, would be a let-down. It is hard to imagine an American general puffing up his chest to say, “Yeah, we won the war, and we’ve just figured this out. It was thanks to Moore’s Law.”

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