We are a species capable of developing technology: we can comprehend our surroundings and put that information to use.
The vehicles that carry us, the dwellings we sleep in, the medication that cures and protects us, the machinery we use for production, the instruments that make music and art, and the devices we use to interact with each other are just a few examples of the technology we rely on every day.
Many of the trends we cover at Our World in Data are influenced by technological advancements. To achieve the doubling of life expectancy worldwide, the technological transformation was required. It is also what allows for economic growth and, as a result, poverty reduction. Much of what we write about here is, in this way, really about technology.
This page will look at some of the most important criteria for measuring technological progress, particularly in technologies that have only recently been developed and where innovation is exceptionally rapid.
Technological advancement is not always beneficial, and technological innovation is responsible for some of humanity’s greatest threats.
Computational technology advances
Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years.
Because the capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly tied to the number of transistors, this regularity of technological change is critical. This article shows a wide range of technical measurements, including processor speed, product pricing, memory capacity, and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras, have been increasing exponentially.
Gordon E. Moore, the co-founder of Intel, described the Law in 1965, and it is named after him.
1 Moore’s famous tiny graph, which he published in 1965, is reproduced below. Moore only had seven observations between 1959 and 1965, as you can see, but he expected continued growth, saying, “There is no reason to assume it will not remain almost constant for at least ten years.”
He was not only correct about the following ten years, as our enormous updated graph indicates. Surprisingly, the regularity he discovered has lasted for more than half a century.
The logarithmic vertical axis was chosen to demonstrate the growth rate’s linearity. The curve represents exponential growth, with the number of transistors doubling every two years.
Technological change that isn’t linear
However, technological change can also be characterized by abrupt, non-linear changes. This non-linearity is particularly evident in situations that exhibit rapid evolution after a significant enabling breakthrough. Two instances of such tendencies are shown below: the first human flight and the human genome sequencing.
The history of human flight and non-linear technological change
Since 1800, non-commercial planes have set a new global distance record. This is the longest distance traveled without refueling by a non-commercial powered aircraft. Humans had not yet created the technology required for powered flight before the twentieth century. The Wright Brothers were thus able to construct the first powered flying technology in 1903. The record distance increased nearly 150,000-fold from 0.28 kilometers in 1903 to almost 41,500 kilometers in 2006. This initial innovation sparked rapid progress in modern aviation, with the record distance increasing nearly 150,000-fold from 0.28 kilometers in 1903 to nearly 41,500 kilometers in 2006.
This is an example of technical change that is not linear. Humanity made a breakthrough, and fast growth followed in the decades.
Even people closely tracking the evolution may be surprised by such non-linear discoveries. A remarkable example of this is the history of heavier-than-air flying. “I confess that in 1901, I told my brother Orville that man would not fly for 50 years,” Wilbur Wright is reported as saying. The brothers were victorious two years later.
Human genome DNA sequencing is an example of non-linear technological change.
From 1990 to 2003, the Human Genome Project (HGP) intended to map the entire set of nucleotide base pairs that make up human DNA (more than three billion). This groundbreaking discovery and determination of the human genome sequence was a watershed moment in the area of DNA sequencing.
The graph depicts how much technology has progressed since then. The cost of implementing this technology is used to determine this.