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IBM announced a major breakthrough in chip technology today, with a super-tiny 7-nanometer chip. This chip breaks the difficult 10nm barrier and proves that the industry can still move along an important innovation pace known as “Moore’s Law.” 

Practically speaking, the team used a novel type of hybrid fabric, silicon germanium, to shrink the fundamental components of the chip to 7nm each. 

Projects like this could allow for cheaper and more powerful computing in the near future, and chip makers like IBM and rivals like Intel are vying to usher it in. For the former, it shows how a $3B investment in advancing computer power, in order to keep up with the demand of big data, can pay off. 

The lowest part of the line approaches 7 nanometers. (Graph courtesy of Intel)

For tech makers, it’s a sign of things to come. Although these teeny processors aren’t available today—and even if they were, they would surely go to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) first, not hardware startups—the breakthrough shows how the industry plans to blast through the obstacles plaguing today’s chips. 

In other words, before long, developers may be building software for smaller gadgets run by futuristic chips, with faster speed, more storage capacity and better energy consumption. That can’t come fast enough, as numerous trends, from the Internet of Things to virtual reality, demand increasingly more from our devices. Meanwhile, it could birth new categories of more compact hardware that may not have to bulk out to fit massive batteries. 

It’s a trajectory worth keeping an eye on, since it could have deep implications across a range of technologies. 

More broadly speaking, IBM’s work also renews optimism that technology can maintain the breakneck pace of Moore’s Law, which predicts that the density of transistors should grow exponentially, doubling every 6 months. With the 7nm breakthrough, technology has roughly continued on that exponential growth path. 

It’s worth noting that Moore’s law isn’t really a mathematical law, but a rough observation about how technology improves over time. For a while now, the pace of technology seems to have sped up, moving much quicker than Moore anticipated. Now, there’s no plateau in sight, which means technological progress isn’t slowing down—but ramping up to speed past previous physical barriers. 

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Lead photo by ChrisDag