This article goes through, in no particular order, 20 of the most significant technological advancements we have made in the last 20 years.
- Smartphones: Mobile phones existed before the 21st century. However, in the past 20 years, their capabilities have improved enormously. In June 2007, Apple released the iPhone, the first touchscreen smartphone with mass-market appeal. Many other companies took inspiration from the iPhone. As a consequence, smartphones have become an integral part of day-to-day life for billions of people around the world. Today, we take pictures, navigate our way, order food, play games, message friends, listen to music, etc. all on our smartphones. Oh, and you can also use them to call people.
- Flash Drives: First sold by IBM in 2000, the USB flash drive allows you to easily store files, photos or videos, with a storage capacity so large that it would have been unfathomable just a few decades ago. Today, a 128GB flash drive, available for less than $20 on Amazon, has more than 80,000 times the storage capacity of a 1.44MB floppy disk, which was the most popular type of storage disk in the 1990s.
- Skype: Launched in August 2003, Skype transformed the way that people communicate across borders. Before Skype, calling friends or family abroad cost huge amounts of money. Today, speaking to people on the other side of the world, or even video calling with them, is practically free.
- Google: Google’s search engine actually premiered in the late 1990s, but the company went public in 2004, leading to its colossal growth. Google revolutionised the way people search for information. Every hour there are more than 228 million Google searches. Today Google is part of Alphabet Inc. – a company that offers dozens of services such as translations, e-mail services, Docs, a web browser, and more.
- Google Maps: In February 2005, Google launched its mapping service, which changed the way that many people travel. With the app available on virtually all smartphones, Google Maps has made getting lost virtually impossible. It’s easy to forget that just two decades ago, most travel involved extensive route planning, with paper maps nearly always necessary when venturing to unfamiliar places.
- Human Genome Project: In April 2003, scientists successfully sequenced the entire human genome. Through the sequencing of our roughly 23,000 genes, the project shed light on many different scientific fields, including disease treatment, human migration, evolution and molecular medicine.
- YouTube: In May 2005, the first video was uploaded to what today is the world’s most popular video sharing website. From Harvard University lectures on quantum mechanics and favorite TV episodes, to “how-to” tutorials and funny cat videos, billions of pieces of content can be streamed on YouTube for free.
- Graphene: In 2004, researchers at the University of Manchester became the first scientists to isolate graphene. Graphene is an atom-thin carbon allotrope that can be isolated from graphite, the soft, flaky material used in pencil lead. Although humans have been using graphite since the Neolithic era, isolating graphene was previously impossible. With its unique conductive, transparent and flexible properties, graphene has enormous potential to create more efficient solar panels, water filtration systems and even defences against mosquitos.
- Bluetooth: While Bluetooth technology was officially unveiled in 1999, it was only in the early 2000s that manufacturers began to adopt Bluetooth for use in computers and mobile phones. Today, Bluetooth is featured in a wide range of devices and has become an integral part of many people’s day-to-day lives.
- Facebook: First developed in 2004, Facebook was not the first social media website. Due to its simplicity to use, however, Facebook quickly overtook existing social networking sites like Friendster and Myspace. With 2.41 billion active users per month (almost a third of the world’s population), Facebook has transformed the way billions of people share news and personal experiences with one another.
- Curiosity, the Mars Rover: First launched in November 2011, Curiosity is looking for signs of habitability on Mars. In 2014, the rover uncovered one of the biggest space discoveries of this millennium when it found water under the surface of the red planet. Curiosity’s work could help humans become an interplanetary species eventually.
- Electric Cars: Although electric cars are not a 21st century invention, it wasn’t until the 2000s that these vehicles were built on a large scale. Commercially available electric cars, such as the Tesla Roadster or the Nissan Leaf, can be plugged into any electrical socket to charge. They do not require fossil fuels to run. Although still considered a fad by some, electric cars are becoming ever more popular, with more than 1.5 million units sold in 2018.
- Driverless Cars: In August 2012, Google announced that its automated vehicles had completed over 300,000 miles of driving, accident-free. Although Google’s self-driving cars are the most popular at the moment, almost all car manufacturers have created or are planning to develop automated cars. Currently, these cars are in testing stages, but provided that the technology is not hindered by overzealous regulations, automated cars will likely be commercially available in the next few years.
- The Large Hadron Collider (LHC): With its first test run in 2013, the LHC became the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It’s also the world’s largest single machine. The LHC allows scientists to run experiments on some of the most complex theories in physics. Its most important finding so far is the Higgs-Boson particle. The discovery of this particle lends strong support to the “standard model of particle physics,” which describes most of the fundamental forces in the universe.
- AbioCor Artificial Heart: In 2001, the AbioCor artificial heart, which was created by the Massachusetts-based company AbioMed, became the first artificial heart to successfully replace a human heart in heart transplant procedures. The AbioCor artificial heart powers itself. Unlike previous attempts to create artificial hearts, it doesn’t need intrusive wires that heighten the likelihood of infection and death.
- 3D Printing: Although 3D printers as we know them today began in the 1980s, the development of cheaper manufacturing methods and open-source software contributed to a 3D printing revolution over the last two decades. Today, 3D printers are being used to print spare parts, whole houses, medicines, bionic limbs and even entire human organs.
- Amazon Kindle: In November 2007, Amazon released the Kindle. Since then, a plethora of e-readers has changed the way millions of people read. Thanks to e-readers, people don’t need to carry around heavy stacks of books, and independent authors can get their books to an audience of millions of people without going through a publisher.
- Stem Cell Research: Previously the stuff of science fiction, stem cells (i.e., basic cells that can become almost any type of cell in the body) are being used to grow, among other things, kidney, lung, brain and heart tissue. This technology will likely save millions of lives in the coming decades as it means that patients will no longer have to wait for donor organs or take harsh medicines to treat their ailments.
- Multi-use Rockets: In November and December of 2015, two separate private companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX, successfully landed reusable rockets. This development greatly cheapens the cost of getting to space and brings commercial space travel one step closer to reality.
- Gene Editing: In 2012, researchers from Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Broad Institute each independently discovered that a bacterial immune system known as CRISPR could be used as a gene-editing tool to change an organism’s DNA. By cutting out pieces of harmful DNA, gene-editing technology will likely change the future of medicine and could eventually eradicate some major diseases.
So let’s take a moment to think about the immense technological advancements of the last 20 years, and remember that despite what we may read in the newspapers or see on TV, humans continue to reach new heights of prosperity.
A version of this article was first published on Human.Progress.com.