The Economist debate on the most significant technological development of the 20th century

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The Economist has just posted my invited comments on their current debate: "This house believes the development of computing was the most significant technological advance of the 20th century."

As with the last time I was invited to be a "guest speaker" (just one of the oddities of horning an Oxford-style debate into an online shoe), I have difficulty coloring between the lines.  Here are the first couple of graphs of today's contribution:

The development of computing--broadly construed--was indeed the most significant technological advance of the 20th century. New technologies, however, never crop up by themselves, but are instead part of the woven web of human endeavour. There is always more to a given technology than meets the eye.

We often oversimplify "computing" and think only of software or algorithms used to manipulate information. That information comes in units of bits, and our ability to store and crunch those bits has certainly changed our economies and societies over the past century. But those bits reside on a disk, or in a memory circuit, and the crunching of bits is done by silicon chips. Those disks, circuits and chips had to improve so that computing could advance.

Progress in building computers during the mid-20th century required first an understanding of materials and how they interact; from this knowledge, which initially lived on paper and in the minds of scientists and engineers, were built the first computer chips. As those chips increased in complexity, so did the computational power they conferred on computer designers. That computational power was used to design more powerful chips, creating a feedback loop. By the end of the century, new chips and software packages could only be designed using computers, and their complex behaviour could only be understood with the aid of computers.

The development of computing, therefore, required not just development of software but also of the ability to build the physical infrastructure that runs software and stores information. In other words, our improving ability to control atoms in the service of building computers was crucial to advancing the technology we call "computing". Advances in controlling atoms have naturally been extended to other areas of human enterprise. Computer-aided design and manufacturing have radically changed our ability to transform ideas into objects. Our manufactured world--which includes cars, aircraft, medicines, food, music, phones and even shoes--now arrives at our doorsteps as a consequence of this increase in computational power.

I go on to observe that computation is already having an effect on food through increased corn yields courtesy of gene sequencing and expression analysis.

Like so:

Biodesic_US_corn_yield.pngClick through to read the rest.



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