1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEA

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Professor of psychology and a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
Professor of Computer Science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

BOARD GAMES

Board games, more than any other invention, foretell the role of science in understanding the universe through symbolic reasoning. Their essence is a simple set of rules for generating a complex network of possibilities by manipulating tokens on a reticulate board.

Board games are found as artifacts of the earliest Egyptian dynasties, so they don't truly fall within the 2000 year limit, but they have undergone a rapid "adaptive radiation" in the last millennium. Thales' invention of logic (the manipulation of abstract tokens under fixed rules) was likely influenced by a knowledge of board games, and board games offered an early metaphoric guide for politics and war in both the East (Go) and the West (Chess). These insights, in turn, had much to do with transition from the belief that the world around us is controlled by the whims and personalities of gods to the outlook that the world can be described in lawlike fashion. In the 19th and 20th centuries board games became the inspiration for models, simulations and mathematics, ranging from genetics and evolution to markets and social interaction. Board games also offer a simple example of the recondite phenomenon called emergence — "much coming from little" — as when a fertilized egg yields a complex organism consisting of tens of billions of cells. And, via a mutation into video-games, board games offer the next generation an entry into the world of long horizons and rigorous thought — both in short supply in the current generation.