Old Inventions

Most people don’t know how microchips work. We don’t know how the pyramids were made, either.

Old Inventions

Most people don’t know how microchips work. We don’t know how the pyramids were made, either.

I think technology is an incredibly bizarre part of our lives. The vast majority of people use it throughout the day without knowing how it works. Most assume it should “just work” and don’t bother with the inner mechanisms that allow it to do so.

I find this absolutely fascinating because it’s all still so new. Sure, it makes for an interesting comment over the dinner table now and then. You hear something along the lines of, “Isn’t it just amazing I can talk to my daughter from the other side of the world?”

I think it’s not just amazing: it’s unbelievable.

Science and technology are moving so fast, it’s easy for people born with this stuff to not appreciate how unbelievable it is. It sounds surprising now, but just fifteen years ago, smartphones were hardly a thing. Today, it’s the device we all hold right in our pockets — but, if you show this familiar everyday gadget to someone from fifty years ago, it would blow their mind.

Now, imagine giving it to someone from five hundred years ago. They’d probably either praise you as an incarnation of God, or see it as witchcraft and burn you alive. (I know which one I’d prefer).

The point is, the technology we have access to today is remarkable. We should all know that — but most of us don’t really know how it works.

Given you’re reading an article about technology on Medium, I’m going to assume you have an understanding that microchips are the foundation of our technology. Whether it’s your phone or laptop — or now, watch, washing machine, and fridge — all the computers we have around us are powered by these wonderful devices called microchips.

These miniscule rectangles of silicon have circuits embossed onto them; circuits which, as electricity travels through them, give rise to all the logical actions and reactions needed to run a machine. When I press a button on my keyboard, it closes an electrical circuit in the same way a light switch does — and that electrical impulse starts off a chain reaction that eventually ends up with an alphabet appearing on my screen.

I can tell you all this, but if you asked me what exactly the electrical signal were and how they went, I would simply have no clue.

For a long time, I understood the role of microchips. I’ve built several computers, and could identify and understand what microchips in different components were designed to do. What I didn’t know was how exactly they did them.

This is an example of abstraction. A concept used extensively in computer science, abstraction is actually a simple idea: it’s about hiding the complexities of complicated objects or systems, often through an interface. If you’ve hit the “order” button on your food delivery app without worrying about cardboard carton grades and logistics algorithms, then you know what abstraction is.

Abstraction allows objects or systems to be used without knowing exactly how they work. You witness abstraction all the time in daily life. You can drive a car without knowing how its engine works.

Abstraction is  why we know so little about how our devices work: they’re complex, and it’s not necessary for everyone to know the intricacies of their systems just to use them.

However, I believe it is very important that enough people do understand how such things work, as too much abstraction over too many years can lead to a general loss of understanding.

The worst scenario is that we actually forget how we made such things, and stop being able to replicate them. This has happened several times in history,: just look at the pyramids.

The Great Pyramid of Giza contains 2.3 million individual blocks of stone. It supposedly took twenty years to build, which means a block must have been laid every five minutes, every hour of the day, every day of the year, for twenty years straight….

Given each block has a mass between two and thirty tonnes, this seems a near impossible task. Not to mention the fact that things would have got progressively harder as the pyramid got taller.

We believe we know how they may have been built, but there are still many conspiracy theories that Egyptians did not built the pyramids. Many predict they were actually built by an advanced, ancient civilisation which we know nothing about.

We are so used to believing that science and technology are always growing, always moving forwards. That is certainly the current situation, and its growth over the last century, in terms of breakthroughs, has been exponential. But this may not always be the case.

Over thousands of years, science and technology have moved both forwards and backwards.

It is very rare for technology to actually move backwards, but what is more likely is the knowledge is lost. Today it’s said that we know pretty much all there is to know about what our ancestors discovered. Although information may have been lost for periods in history, it has since been revived. But here’s the thing:  we don’t know what we don’t know.

There may well have been an ancient civilisation of humans more advanced than us, but all evidence of them has been lost through time.

Although we believe we currently have very little lost knowledge, there have been points in history where people were in awe of what their ancestors achieved. I won’t pretend to be a historian, but one example is the fall of Rome.

When the Roman empire collapsed, much of its infrastructure was still in place, but no one knew how to replicate it. This included the famed aqueducts, which took the idea of the bridge in reverse: aqueducts were bridges to carry water, allowing it to flow across ditches and valleys in the land.

On the more theoretical side, most of the algorithms the Romans used to calculate bearable loads were lost.

We know that the Romans must have had exact mathematics to plan their buildings, with some form of calculus and geometry. But making those calculations with Roman numerals? We still don’t know how the did it: that information has been lost. It was only when Newton, Leibniz and Descartes “invented” modern-day calculus and geometry that we got to that level of mathematics again, several centuries after.

There’s a reason the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy are known as the Renaissance. It is French for “Rebirth”, as this is the period when a vast amount of science and technology was discovered and invented — or rather, rediscovered and reinvented, because it’s likely that a lot of it existed before.

Whether it’s diseases, wars, climate change, or the stray meteor strike, there is always a possibility that something can halt the growth of science and technology. I believe it’s imperative that we ensure our science, technology, and information will always exist for future generations.

I’m happy to say that some attempts are being made in this direction, such as the Memory of Mankind project which aims to collect humanity’s knowledge into microscopic engravings, and bury it in a salt mine for future generations to discover. Engravings are the way to go, because videotapes, CDs, pendrives, and whatever technology we come up with next are liable to disappear — or at least, be locked away in long-forgotten file-formats. Anyone, even a million years from now, can read the same engraving.

Preservation aside, I also believe that we should make the most of what we have invented. We should put people on Mars! If something terrible does happen, a great reset, we may never get the opportunity again.

Wait, are you asking me how exactly we’d put people on Mars? I’m afraid I haven’t the faintest idea.