Technology can change the world in ways that are unimaginable until they happen. Turning on an electric light would have been unthinkable to our medieval ancestors. In childhood, our grandparents would have struggled to imagine a world connected by smartphones and the internet.
In the same way, it is difficult for us to imagine the arrival of all those technologies that will fundamentally change the world we are used to.
We can remind ourselves that our own future may look very different from the world today by looking back at how quickly technology has changed our world in the past. That is what this article is about.
One insight I take with me from this long-term perspective is how unusual our times are. Technological change was extremely slowly in the past – the technologies that our ancestors became accustomed to in childhood were still central to their lives in their old age. In stark contrast to that time, we live in a time of extraordinarily rapid technological change. In recent generations, it was common for technologies that were unimaginable in youth to become commonplace later in life.
The long-term perspective on technological change
The large visualization provides a long-term perspective on the history of technology.1
The timeline begins in the middle of the spiral. The first use of stone tools, 3.4 million years ago, marks the beginning of this technological history.2 Each turn in the spiral then represents 200,000 years of history. It took 2.4 million years – 12 revolutions of the spiral – for our ancestors to control fire and use it for cooking.3
In order to visualize the inventions of the recent past – the last 12,000 years – I had to unroll the spiral. I needed more space to be able to show when agriculture, writing and the wheel were invented. During this period, technological change was faster, but it was still relatively slow: several thousand years passed between each of these three inventions.
From 1800 onwards, I stretched the timeline even further to show the many great inventions that quickly followed one another.
The long-term perspective that this chart provides makes clear how unusually rapid technological change is in our time.
You can use this visualization to see how technology has evolved in specific domains. For example, follow the history of communication: from writing, to paper, to printing, to telegraph, telephone, radio, all the way to the internet and smartphones.
Or follow the rapid development of human flight. In 1903, the Wright brothers took the first flight in human history (they were in the air for less than a minute), and just 66 years later we landed on the moon. Many people saw both in their lifetime: the first flight and the moon landing.
This large visualization also highlights the wide range of technology’s impact on our lives. It includes extraordinarily beneficial innovations, like the vaccine that enabled humanity to eradicate smallpox, and it includes terrible innovations, like the atomic bombs that put the lives of us all at risk.
What will the next decades bring?
The red timeline reaches the present and then continues in green into the future. Many children born today, even without any further increase in life expectancy, will live well into the 22nd century.
New vaccines, progress in clean, low-carbon energy, better cancer treatments – a number of future innovations can greatly improve our living conditions and the environment around us. But, as I argue in a series of articles, there is one technology that can change our world even more profoundly: artificial intelligence.
One reason why artificial intelligence is such an important innovation is that intelligence is the main driver of innovation itself. This rapid technological change can accelerate even more if it is driven not only by human intelligence, but also by artificial intelligence. If this happens, the change that currently stretches out over the course of decades could happen within a very short space of just one year. Possibly even faster.4
I believe AI technology can have a fundamentally transformative impact on our world. In many ways, it is already changing our world, as I documented in this companion article. As this technology becomes more capable in the coming years and decades, it could give enormous power to those who control it (and that poses a risk that it could escape our control entirely).
Such systems may seem difficult to imagine today, but AI technology is advancing very quickly. Many AI experts believe that there is a very real chance that human-level artificial intelligence will be developed within the next few decades, as I documented in this article.
Technology will continue to change the world – we should all make sure it changes it for the better
What is familiar to us today – photography, radio, antibiotics, the Internet or the International Space Station circling our planet – was unthinkable to our ancestors just a few generations ago. If your great-great-grandparents could spend a week with you, they’d be impressed by your everyday life.
What I take away from this story is that I will likely see technologies in my lifetime that seem unimaginable to me today.
In addition to this trend towards ever-faster innovation, there is another long-term trend. The technology has become increasingly powerful. While our ancestors used stone tools, we are building worldwide AI systems and technologies that can edit our genes.
Because of the enormous power technology gives to those who control it, few things are as important as the question of which technologies are developed in our lifetimes. Therefore, I think it is wrong to leave the question of the future of technology to the technologists. Which technologies are controlled by whom is one of the most important political questions of our time, because of the enormous power that these technologies convey to those who control them.
We should all strive to acquire the knowledge we need to contribute to an intelligent debate about the world we want to live in. To a large extent, this means gaining knowledge and wisdom on the question of which technologies we want.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank my colleagues Hannah Ritchie, Bastian Herre, Natasha Ahuja, Edouard Mathieu, Daniel Bachler, Charlie Giattino and Pablo Rosado for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay and the visualization. Thanks also to Lizka Vaintrob and Ben Clifford for a conversation that started this visualization.
This article was originally published on Our World in Data and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image credit: Pat Kay / Unsplash