Looking at the way we live today, it’s easy to think that relatively recent discoveries and innovations in science and technology are responsible for our modern lifestyle. But even the newest devices and equipment today have their foundations in technology developed centuries ago. The technology used for information exchange, communication, transportation and many other essential aspects of our lives are all a result of a series of inventions and innovations that go back well into the past.
Let’s take a look at some of the most crucial technological advancements in history.
1. Optical Lenses
Using glass to refract light is a simple idea, but it took humanity a long time to discover it. Some Roman scholars were vaguely familiar with the optical effects of water in a glass bowl, but only centuries later did the collective intelligence of humankind take a major leap following the invention of eyeglasses, which led to the eventual development of the telescope and microscope.
Over the centuries, we’ve found many ways to use the distortion of light to our benefit. Most notably, we use the optical lens to bring into focus things that are otherwise imperceptible to the naked human eye due to distance or size. As a result, we can avoid the inconvenience and dangers that stem from poor vision. The same technology lets us view the infinitesimal building blocks of matter and life as well as massive celestial bodies in the cosmos.
2. Paper and the Printing Press
Paper is one of the best examples of how a simple technological advancement can change the world. We use this versatile material in writing and printing, cleaning, covering walls, filtering coffee and many other things.
Immediately after its invention, paper become one of the most highly demanded products. Before paper came along, people used tree bark, metal, animal skins, linen, papyrus and various other material to store important information. Papermaking started in China and spread around the world.
Along with other advancements — such as inkmaking and woodblock printing — paper led to the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, which massively reduced the cost of printing. Books and news traveled faster, and literacy among common people rose sharply. This invention also transformed the European labor market as new occupations such as printing artisans, writers and publishers arose.
Computers and mobile devices often take the place of paper books and documents these days. It is unknown whether this usage will cause paper to become obsolete.
Modern life would be impossible without affordable, reliable electricity. It provides a safe, clean source of light around the clock, heats our homes in winter and cools them on hot summer days. It’s the lifeblood of all our devices and equipment. Billions of people around the world plug into the grid every day without giving a second thought to the history of electricity.
Benjamin Franklin’s electricity experiments in the mid-1700s showed us how little we knew about it. We then began searching for ways to use electricity to improve our lives. When the power grid was built, electric power was consolidated and mass-produced. Networked power and rural electrification became a reality.
Today, the electric power industry continues to grow. The next generation of electricity entrepreneurs is hard at work to take us beyond the next horizon.
4. The Internal Combustion Engine
In 1879, Carl Benz made the first car with a functional internal combustion engine. But it was not until 1913 that the general population had access to affordable cars after Henry Ford put together his assembly line and gave us the Model T. The advent of automobiles with combustion engines drastically changed the way we travel.
We changed the way we built homes and cities to accommodate cars, which let people travel faster and further. The advancements of the automobile industry also affected the financial industry as banks started offering car loans and insurance companies began providing auto insurance products.
The growth of the automobile industry as a result of the internal combustion engine also changed the way people socialize. The size of interpersonal networks was no longer limited by walking distances as people could drive miles to meet friends, family and business associates. Movie theatres and diners quickly multiplied as a result of the expansion of the automobile industry following the invention of the internal combustion engine.
Electronic devices become indispensable in the information age. Every day, we use devices such as PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and smart home equipment that would not be possible without the transistor. The invention of transistors was inspired by a previous technology, the vacuum tube. At the time of its inception, the vacuum tube was simply used as a means to toggle a device switch on or off. This binary logic is the basis of modern devices.
Even though transistors and vacuum tubes essentially do the same thing, transistors are vastly smaller than vacuum tubes and far more efficient. A typical vacuum tube was several inches long, while early transistors were a just few millimeters. Their size has now shrunk to nanometers. This minuscule size makes modern transistors countless times more durable, efficient and reliable than their predecessors.
At this stage of our progress, we’re looking for ways to store data at the atomic level. Future computers will likely use a combination of cold computing, quantum computing and compound semiconductors to solve these and other related problems.
6. Personal Computers
The advancements in transistors and computing technology are virtually indistinguishable. Still, the invention of the personal computer merits its own section as it played a crucial role in the ongoing journey of humanity. Computing determines how we design objects, how we share information, how we work, who we do business with and so on. It determines how we perceive our immediate environment and the entire cosmos.
Without advancements in computing, humankind would not have a platform it needed to make the historical technological breakthroughs that followed.
7. The Internet
The internet has transformed the world in many ways. Search engines — from Alta Vista to Yahoo, Google, Bing and so on — let internet users search through billions of sites by entering one or more keywords. These search engines process a massive numbers of search queries every second, with Google being the market leader.
Ecommerce sites such as eBay, Amazon and Alibaba continue to facilitate the shift from shopping at physical stores and markets to online shopping. With a few clicks or a voice command, we can order everything from groceries to electronic devices to clothes and have the items delivered to our homes.
Billions of internet users around the world use social media daily, and the number continues to grow. Social media sites play an increasingly important role in our personal relationships, careers and entertainment. They’re essential to modern business strategies and affect health care, governance, disaster management and human rights advocacy.
Professionals, entrepreneurs and startup team members can work remotely with the help of high-speed internet connections that are reliable, secure and affordable.
8. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning shape our daily lives and decisions more than we realize. Machine learning is an aspect of AI in which computers autonomously learn and improve their performance by processing massive volumes of data.
Examples of industries that AI and machine learning continue to affect include
- Education. Schools can use algorithms to create customized study plans, analyze test results, identify knowledge gaps and compensate for learning disabilities to maximize the educational outcome.
- Law. Law firms are increasingly using machine learning technology to process vast amounts of legal data, carrying out functions such as reviewing thousands of documents in mere seconds.
- Health. Machine learning has sped up patient diagnosis, with predictive algorithms being used to detect potential health problems long before they occur. These algorithms are also hastening medical research.
- Transport. We making huge leaps in transportation as vehicles become increasingly autonomous.
Along with the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning has also changed our home life. With personal assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant, we can use voice commands to control smart home devices such as lighting, curtains, door locks and so on.
Robots have helped us not only to do things more efficiently but also do things which we were previously incapable of. The technology augments physical abilities, assists in disaster management, interacts with people where necessary and ventures deep into space.
The applications of robotics are not limited to assembly lines and manufacturing. We also use this technology in medicine for tasks such as robotic surgery. Robots can also serve in customer service as receptionists that are unencumbered by the emotionality that often plague human customer service representatives. Furthermore, robots do jobs that are too dangerous for humans, such as working in environments that are high in toxic or radioactive contamination.
Robots are positively transforming our lives. Although they have taken over many human jobs, they vastly improve efficiency and boost economic activity. As a result, new occupations emerge, giving humans more opportunities to generate a meaningful income.
10. CRISPR Gene Editing
A new gene editing technology known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) promises a world without birth defects, cancer, mental illnesses and other health problems. Combined with certain RNA, this technology can insert or delete genetic sequences in specific DNA.
The possibilities of CRISPR research are wide-ranging: treating genetic disorders, treating cancers, preventing diseases before they manifest, etc. Theoretically, geneticists can target any cell population in the body. However, there are many practical limitations. Groundbreaking as the technology may be, it’s not obvious where to draw the ethical lines with this technology.
Many believe that taken too far, the technology may violate the very essence of what makes us human. We can’t ignore the implications of interfering with human characteristics. Still, with appropriate regulations, this technology could save innumerable lives and improve many more.
Lifestyle and Education Drive the Most Meaningful Technological Breakthroughs
When you take a look at human history, it becomes clear that each generation brought with it an invention or innovation that changed the course of humanity. These improvements helped us surpass previously impossible limitations. We’re always looking for the next big thing to make our lives easier.
Interestingly, each evolution in the lifestyle of humans had led to the improvement of our overall well-being. When held back by a primitive lifestyle, there was no chance of improving educational attainment because teachers taught only the norm. Therefore, improving our lifestyle unlocked new knowledge on how to apply new technology.
Lifestyle and education are two aspects of human life that have an unbreakable connection. Until we achieve technological perfection, lifestyle education will continue to be an ongoing project for humankind.