Think about the words we use to describe the technology around us and the innovations on the horizon—terms such as computer, binary, and artificial intelligence. These words form the foundation of the data and digital revolution of the 21st century. But do we actually know what they mean and where they come from? To take full advantage of emerging technologies—or deep tech—and to solve major business issues, it is essential that we grasp the meaning as well as the context of these terms.
Understanding past inventions, discoveries, developments, and schools of thought helps us to do exactly that—because the data and digital revolution actually started thousands of years ago. In fact, we are standing on the shoulders of giants: the scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals who have contributed to innovations in the past, as well as those who carry on today. Euclid, Aristotle, Boole, Shannon, Einstein, Feynman, Searle—there are as many noteworthy names as there are historical milestones to herald the ongoing revolution.
BCG’s Deep Tech Mission Logbook, which takes a look at the history of science, focuses on 23 terms that are significant in our digital world yet are often misunderstood or underrated. For example, the word digit comes from the Latin word meaning “finger,” because people in antiquity used their fingers to count. As the concept evolved, it moved from arithmetic to geometry to algebra, currently ending with computer science, which uses two digits to code. Similarly, a journey into the history of the word creativity, which we define as “the capacity to build new perceptions of things” begins with such creative thinkers as Luca Pacioli, Charles Darwin, and Gregor Mendel, who amassed large amounts of data. Without the big data gathered by these early data scientists, the method of double-entry bookkeeping, the theory of natural selection, and even the first laws of genetics would not have come about.
Each of these words underscores a compelling concept: that the important challenge of the current AI revolution will be its impact on human beings, especially in terms of privacy, ethics, and geopolitics. And this revolution will succeed only if we grasp the full extent of the value of human beings versus that of an algorithm, a computer, or a robot. More than ever, understanding our world and the origins of its continuous transformation is important to harness the potential, perceive the risks, and take advantage of the opportunities offered by new technologies—as well as to anticipate tech’s next generation.