Special Report

21 Most Important Inventions of the 21st Century

Angelo Young, Michael B. Sauter

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16. Online streaming

Online streaming would not be possible without the convergence of widespread broadband internet access and cloud computing data centers used to store content and direct web traffic. While internet-based live streaming has been around almost since the internet was broadly adopted in the ’90s, it was not until the mid-2000s that the internet could handle the delivery of streaming media to large audiences. Online streaming is posing an existential threat to existing models of delivering media entertainment, such as cable television and movie theaters.

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17. Robotic exoskeletons

Ever since researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, created in 2003 a robotic device that attaches to the lower back to augment strength in humans, the demand for robotic exoskeletons for physical rehabilitation has increased, and manufacturing has taken off. Wearable exoskeletons are increasingly helping people with mobility issues (particularly lower body paralysis), and are being used in factories. Ford Motor Company, for example, has used an exoskeleton vest that helps auto assemblers with repetitive tasks in order to lessen the wear and tear on shoulders and arms.

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18. Small satellites

As modern electronics devices have gotten smaller, so, too, have orbital satellites, which companies, governments, and organizations use to gather scientific data, collect images of Earth, and for telecommunications and intelligence purposes. These tiny, low-cost orbital devices fall into different categories by weight, but one of the most common is the shoebox-sized CubeSat. As of October 2019, over 2,400 satellites weighing between 1 kg (2.2 lbs) and 40 kgs (88 lbs) have been launched, according to Nanosats Database.

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19. Solid-state lidar

Lidar is an acronym that stands for light detection and ranging, and is also a portmanteau of the words “light” and “radar.” The technology today is most often used in self-driving cars. Like radars, which use radio waves to bounce off objects and determine their distance, lidar uses a laser pulse to do the same.

By sending enough lasers in rotation, it can create a constantly updated high-resolution image map of the surrounding environment. The next steps in the technology would include smaller and cheaper lidar sensors, and especially solid state ones — no spinning tops on the cars.

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20. Tokenization

If you have ever used the chip embedded in a credit or debit card to make a payment by tapping rather than swiping, then you have benefited from the heightened security of tokenization. This data security technology replaces sensitive data with an equivalent randomized number – known as a token – that is used only once per transaction and has no value to would-be hackers and identity thieves attempting to intercept transaction data as it travels from sender to recipient. Social media site classmates.com was reportedly the first to use tokenization in 2001 to protect its subscribers’ sensitive data. Tokenization is also being touted as a way to prevent hackers from interfering with driverless cars.

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21. Touchscreen glass

Super-thin, chemically strengthened glass is a key component of the touchscreen world. This sturdy, transparent material is what helps keep your iPad or Samsung smartphone from shattering into pieces at the slightest drop. Even if these screens crack, in most cases the damage is cosmetic and the gadget still works. Corning Inc., already a leader in the production of treated glass used in automobiles, was asked by Apple to develop 1.3-mm treated glass for its iPhone, which debuted in 2007. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is still the most well known, though other brands exist in the marketplace.