Innovation’s a perverse thing. It can be quick or slow. We got from powered flight to a moon landing in just over 60 years. But the wheel barrow didn’t come along until 4000 years after the first record of the wheel (4th millennium BC). We never know how, or when, an idea or invention will be used or built upon.
A couple of weeks ago I noted the UK government’s selection of “eight great technologies” for the future. That got me thinking about the great technologies of the past. Everyone has their own lists. The Atlantic recently surveyed a range of inventors, historians and scientists to compile a list of the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel.
Many of the breakthroughs in The Atlantic’s list build on earlier ones (flight and the internal combustion engine; the personal computer and semiconductors). Some others probably don’t immediately come to mind – the alphabet, nail, or air conditioning.
As the article notes, most people’s top picks are very similar (printing press, electricity, penicillin, etc), but there is rapid divergence the further down the individual lists you go. And everyone has their own separate criteria for what is on their list. Just like your list of the best songs ever won’t be the same as mine.
There’s a preponderance of inventions from the last 300 years in The Atlantic’s list, reflecting the influence of the industrial revolution and 20th Century technologies (click on image for a larger view).
What’s missing from the list are more artistic, philosophical and political breakthroughs – the use of perspective in art, the Iliad, dualism, the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Keynesian economics, for example. But that’s to be expected based on the types contributing to the list. You can go elsewhere to find 100 diagrams that changed the world, how double-entry bookkeeping changed the world, or the 50 most badass moments in art history, etc. Others have pointed out technologies that went bad (here too), or zombie tech that lingers when it shouldn’t.
What I found most interesting was the taxonomy that James Fallows, the writer of The Atlantic article, adopted. He based this in part on how one of the contributors presented her picks. The categories (in shorthand) were:
- Improve communication (eg, radio, telegraph, TV)
- Expand intellect (eg, printing press, the internet)
- Enabled the industrial revolution (eg, steam turbine, assembly line, oil refining)
- Develop Infrastructure (eg, the nail, cement, sanitation systems)
- Increase killing power (eg, gun powder, nuclear fission)
- Life extending (eg, penicillin, anaesthesia, the moldboard plow)
- Enhance organisational abilities (eg, alphabetization, the abacus)
- Create new forms of transport (eg, sail boat, steam engine, internal combustion engine)
Some of the final 50 can fall into more than one category (nuclear fission can, for example, cure as well as kill if you include isotopes used for medical treatments). I’ve split his “Life extending” category to make a separate “Better agriculture” one to distinguish health from agricultural breakthroughs:
The intent of many current technology developments and approaches also map well to these categories, although which will be considered great (or even) breakthroughs in a century or two is unknowable.
- Improving communication – telepresence, holographics, augmented reality
- Expanding the intellect – Massive Open Online Courses, artificial intelligence, wearable computing, quantum computing
- Enabling further industrial development – advanced materials, 3d printing, robotics, photovoltaics
- Developing infrastructure – smart grids, better batteries, autonomous vehicles
- Increase killing capabilities – new chemical and biological weapons, armed robots
- Extending life – gene therapies, personalised medicine, regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, robotics & cybernetics
- Better agriculture – precision farming, synthetic biology, laboratory raised meat
- Enhanced organisation – human-computer cooperation, “big data”, automation
- New modes of transport – jetpacks, hyperloops, magnetic levitation
However, for ageing, affluent populations “life extending” may become less important than “life enhancing” as we approach what we currently think of as our senile years. And with a lot more people, crowded into urban regions, and competing for resources, will some of the future greatest breakthroughs be about solving the question of “why can’t we all just get along?”
With the technologies that we have at hand (or perhaps shortly will) there is plenty that we could do, and we now have technologies that give us greatly enhanced capabilities to do things. But the most important issue will be the choices we make about how we use some of the technologies, and social and political powers.
Some of my future money will be on a step change in the efficiency of solar power and super batteries to store that energy. What could we do (both good and bad) if we had unlimited “clean” energy at our beck and call?
I liked the suggestion from one of the contributors to The Atlantic’s list that the great breakthrough they want to see is the return of sailing ships, but ones that store wind energy and download it later. New Zealand could have a piece of that action. Why don’t we already have a shipping magnate here? We’ve got leading boat building technologies, and the need to ship stuff long distances.
What’s lacking from such simple lists is the social, cultural and political contexts in which “breakthroughs” occur (or don’t) – the factors that stimulate or impede invention and their subsequent use and adoption. Why did it take 4000 years to create a wheelbarrow, and why were different places more inventive than others at different times?