March 23, 2011
Way back in 1999, members of a brain trust called The Edge debated a fascinating question: What is the most important invention in the past 2,000 years? Some of the answers (much like the design of the archived discussion site) are dated now. Aspects of computer programming and artificial intelligence that seemed urgent and immortal at the time, such as public key cryptosystems or universal Turing machines, don’t hold up so well. But I find myself returning to this question again and again—it’s a great geeky conversation starter—and thinking about the merits of the various nominees and trying to come up with new ones. There was quite a range: calculus, the printing press, the steam engine, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (yes, some of the discussants were just showing off), reading glasses, the contraceptive pill.
My favorite new nominee for a world-changing invention comes from Hans Rosling, the rock star of TED Talks. He’s a global health expert at the Karolinska Institute who uses data to dispute myths about the developing world. I think he makes a compelling case that the washing machine has been a force for human advancement and will be even more of one, if not not for the next 2,000 years, at least for the foreseeable global future.
I still think it’s hard to beat the birth control pill. But what do you think is the most important invention of the past 2011 years?
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