The Most Important Innovation

In his book about the future of AI, Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom discusses the idea of computers reaching a stage of “superintelligence”, where they are not only smarter than humans but also increase their intellectual superiority to us in a rapid, exponential burst, and maybe even end humanity in a matter of seconds.

This is perhaps science fiction, but it is presented in a serious manner worth considering, and it is emblematic of the speed of change in the modern world that such ideas are bouncing around. Gutenberg’s printing press of course changed everything. But, then, so did writing itself, when Mesopotamians began taking note of transactions on clay tablets.

So how do we calculate what makes an innovation the “most important”? Is it chronological? Partly, yes. But I posit that the internet itself has now reached a stage where it is responsible for such an overwhelmingly positive exponential dissemination of information that by sheer bulk alone it has to take the prize.

We can see from the following chart that social development was relatively low for a long time even after Gutenberg, not really rising until the twentieth century. Now of course the line of social development (thanks to innovation) is pretty much vertical.

We are still in the infancy of the internet, but it is clear that in many ways humanity is advancing at extraordinary speed. Gnashing of teeth about moral degeneracy in the West notwithstanding, most of the planet is improving dramatically, and by almost any metric you care to mention. In their Penguin History of the World, J. M. Roberts and O. A. Westad wrote that civilisation “builds on a basis of cumulative mental and technological resources and the feedback from its own transformations further accelerates the process of change. Ahead lies faster development in every field, in the technical control of environment, in the elaboration of mental patterns, in the changing of social organization, in the accumulation of wealth, in the growth of population.”

The declining populations of westerners and Japanese may be a threat to economic and technological progress, but when even slum dwellers in Mumbai, Lagos and Rio have access to the entire sum of human knowledge on an electronic device in their pocket the potential for human greatness is immense. The internet age will make historic eras of change seem sluglike by comparison.

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