A few weeks ago I picked up Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ and read through a couple chapters.  I read the book right after college, but just now, looking back through Diamond’s thorough exploration on the origins of human cultural differences – a question popped into my head. How long did it take humans — in fully evolved form — to invent the Internet?

Doing some cursory research on Wikipedia, it seems like there is consensus that humans were walking around more or less fully evolved around 50,000 years ago (so, beginning in 48,000 BCE, give or take).  This means that round trip, from bone tools to microprocessors, it takes about 50 millennia.

This stat by itself is interesting, but not all that telling because human populations have not been stagnant over the course of history.  Digging one level deeper, we can multiply the world’s population by time to see how many brain-years it has taken to bring the world to its current level of innovation.

World population is pretty well documented from the year 1800 CE onward, and there are some pretty solid estimates at world populations dating back to the year 1000 CE — but anything before that is pretty much a guess.  Based on the information available — for the purposes of this calculation — I’m going to divide the last 50,000 years of history into three parts and estimate mean world populations for those periods.  If you’d like, you can check my math here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_population#Population_by_region_2

1) year 48,000 BCE – year 1 CE, average population 50 million
2) year 1 CE – year 1900 CE, average population 1 billion
3) year 1800 – 2011 CE, average population 4.5 billion

By year 0, humans had racked up 2.4 trillion brain-years, which was good enough to invent the water wheel and arch bridge.

By year 1900, humans accumulated another 1.9 trillion brain-years, bringing the total to 4.3 trillion – a sum great enough to invent the automobile, air conditioning, and aspirin.

And finally, by the year 2011, humans have an aggregate 5.3 trillion brain-years, good enough to invent computers, the Internet, and cell phones.

According to current population projections, we’re on pace to add another trillion brain-years (bringing the total to 6.3 trillion) in the next century.  I can only imagine what we will have invented by then.

Human Innovation – Past and Future
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