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Who has the best sports team? Best movie in history? Best computer app? Ranking is a silly but fun way to share and explore ideas. With inventions, context matters. At one point, millions of us were dying from smallpox, cholera and other diseases caused by contaminated water, poor waste disposal and virus-spreading insects. By the mid-1800s, indoor plumbing, hot water and better sanitation helped improve health.
Twenty years from now, as the planet continues to overheat, we may be counting the lives saved by the newest air conditioning and refrigeration systems.
For this column, we reviewed the literature regarding technical inventions and focused on modern innovations related to energy and engineering. Still, we should give a nod to some key human inventions outside of this scope.
• Pre-1700s: Significant discoveries before the 1700s included the harnessing of fire, the creation of art, languages, singing, music, the wheel, the plow, ocean-faring ships, maps, the compass and optical lenses.
• Post-1700s: A period teeming with technical invention came after the cultural renaissance. We created the printing press, modern medicine and dentistry, pasteurization, indoor plumbing, vaccines, penicillin, anesthesia, electricity, artificial light, steam engines, cars, airplanes, trains, rapid transit and mass production. The latter meant that exciting new inventions were affordable for the common citizen.
1. HVACR (Generation 1). Heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration systems were a foundation for modern society. They enhanced building health and safety, providing better physical shelter and emotional stability for humanity. Life expectancy has doubled, and the pace of innovation increased with better homes, businesses and institutional buildings. They contributed to civil society, healthy lives, peaceful interactions and aspirations toward an advanced, free world.
2. Communications tech. The telephone, telegraph, radio, internet, email, fax, texting, Wi-Fi and, of course, the smartphone have made the planet “smaller” and globalized human sharing. Broader exposure to ideas and information led to greater sophistication in our collective thinking.
3. Computers and semiconductors. While communication technology made the world smaller, computerization made it much faster to keep up with the rapidly growing world population. The information age allowed us to make industry and agriculture less dominant in an average lifetime and dramatically increased education, but it also brought unexpected consequences.
4. Entertainment tech. Cameras, movies, television, radio, recorded music, computer apps, the World Wide Web, video games, virtual reality and the metaverse are all inevitable extensions of our social and technological development. They’ve expanded, elevated and democratized storytelling, which takes us beyond information sharing and allows for emotional bonding and the development of shared values. It creates a softer edge for a species that is sometimes too driven by industry and commerce.
5. Electric vehicles. We’re a world on the move. As we confront the challenge of climate change, widespread electric vehicle (EV) adoption will reduce our carbon and methane emissions globally by 25% to 30%.
• Efficiency. EVs are 4.6 times as efficient as petrol vehicles, which served us well but are now a problem. The energy system supporting an electric car is 71% more efficient than gasoline/diesel. Engine-to-wheel losses are 3.5 times higher with a gas or diesel car than an electric car.
• Human and planet health. An electric bus helps keep diesel fumes out of your children’s asthmatic lungs. Millions of people are already dying from air pollution; within a few short years, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and mudslides could also be in the millions. We must slow the melting of glaciers, the increase in ocean surface temperatures, and the anomalies with currents such as the Gulf Stream.
6. Clean renewable power and energy storage. Similar to electric vehicles, wind power, solar and batteries are less expensive, better technologies that are healthier for individuals and the planet than the previously dominant fossil-fuel and nuclear systems.
Despite pushback from fossil-fuel companies, utilities and some politicians, the investment community is already moving its billions to renewable power. About 95% of global energy additions in the next three years will be renewables; about 30% of all electricity they already generate.
In the United States, renewables grew 42% between 2010 and 2020, and it’s ramping faster now. Last year, in one year, renewables increased by 20%.
7. HVACR (Generation 2) and advanced cooking. Responding to the carbon and methane crisis, we are focusing more than ever on electric heat pumps, energy recovery technology, heat pump water heaters, induction cooktops, intelligent controls, modern insulation systems and natural refrigerants.
Heat pumps now outsell gas furnaces in the United States. Within about five years, it will be either illegal or virtually illegal to install gas appliances in most cities in North America and around the world. They are three to four times as efficient as combustion equipment, and harmful emissions are near zero.
Induction cooktops create almost no emissions and offer several other advantages compared with the gas- and wood-burning systems they are replacing. Smart homes and buildings are more efficient, more convenient, healthier and more comfortable. Energy recovery ventilators (where they make sense) save energy and provide 100% fresh, highly filtered air for indoor environments.
CFCs are illegal now and HCFCs are being phased out. Manufacturers are introducing better equipment running on natural refrigerants such as carbon dioxide, propane and ammonia. This reduces our carbon imbalance and methane emissions, helping mitigate climate change, air pollution and ozone depletion.
8. Satellites, GPS and autonomous vehicle technology. While sitting in a traffic jam, contemplate this: An autonomous vehicle would get you there faster without having to travel at an average higher rate of speed. The unpopular truth is that computers are better than humans at selecting routes and driving safely. Once we accept these facts and adopt self-driving, our commutes will be more comfortable and productive. We can all have chauffeurs!
9. Robots, drones and modern space travel technology. Similar to heat pumps and electric vehicles, robots and drones are more efficient, optimizing electric, thermal and human energies. Energy efficiency is especially important in the next few decades because the shift to cleaner systems is taking too long relative to the pace of harmful effects to the planet.
This year, The Economist analyzed the continuing domination of the United States in the world economy. One conclusion was that firms in America create more value by achieving higher levels of productivity, presumably through the use of the most advanced technologies available.
Worker fears that robots and drones will take their jobs are legitimate because sometimes they do. The ideal outcome is that machines take on tasks humans don’t want to do and perhaps lead to a life of more leisure and freedom. We may be cynical about this, but it’s worth remembering that in 1890, people in the U.S. manufacturing industry worked about 100 hours per week, on average.
The space travel industry is an easy target for rhetorical commentators (including me on Twitter) because it’s the ultimate R&D gamble, hoovering up venture capital and polluting the atmosphere. However, in many ways, it’s no different than any other form of human exploration and innovation. Humans have always started with a dream, then transformed it through ingenuity into reality. Young people especially hope to someday travel to the stars. And why not?
Numerous discoveries in the space industry have been applied with positive results to other spheres of human activity. Hopefully, spaceships will one day be powered primarily by electricity.
10. Artificial intelligence and quantum computing (if regulated). Some of the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) include systems such as smart thermostats or large building control systems that learn from historical patterns and weather service inputs. They anticipate conditions and make changes for added comfort, better health and energy savings. They also predict mechanical failures before they happen.
Most of the world’s navigation systems have been enhanced by AI — GPS, air traffic control and logistics — all adding to human efficiency.
In medical science, AI can mine massive troves of medical data and, in record time, provide potential diagnoses that might be outside the learning or retention capacity of a doctor or doctors treating a given patient.
On the other hand, AI is considered the most powerful technology in the world by some observers, and we don’t know enough about it. This might make it dangerous.
Dr. Max Roser, an AI expert at Oxford University, wrote: “A technology that is transforming our society needs to be a central interest of all of us. AI systems can cause harm ... when they are used in politically-motivated disinformation campaigns or to enable mass surveillance.”
The lists of human inventions are impressive. Our past ingenuity and evolution should be a source of pride for us all and provide inspiration as we move into a period that could be more chaotic than anything we’ve experienced before. It’s the clean energy age; have faith and create! We can solve our problems and make a better world.