In your opinion, which living person has individually done the most good for humanity?

Someone few people heard of. People who do good don't spend their time advertising that fact, they're busy helping others.

There's only so much time in a day. One can argue that using this time to help more people less is doing "more" good, and there may be network effects to increase the total. But at the extreme end, individuals get very little benefit from that.

I'd say people who focus on pouring their support into others directly are the best people. They also set good examples.

@jens Until they passed away in 2009, my go-to was Norman Borlaug.

Now I'm not so sure.


@urusan For what, singlehandidly making our environment objectively worse?

@urusan I feel like if Linus didn't do it, BSD would be king right now. Elon Musk may be responsible for shifting electric cars at least a decade ahead of alternate timelines. GM had the EV1 (great car) in the 90's and buried the program. We'll have to wait another 10 years to find out if he's done the most good or just some good.

@urusan Same deal with Bill Gates. He's heading in the most good direction, but it'll take years to find out how much good he's doing.

@urusan Or maybe it's a time traveler tweaking details in the present for massive future gains.

@octesian Well, although these aren't bad answers (though I would consider Gates more atoning for his past actions with his present work), I specified individual contributions in the question to avoid having the list being dominated by world leaders and billionaire businessman.

It's easy to have a huge impact when other people are doing the legwork.

This isn't to put down the value of a good vision and leadership, I'm just looking for something more specific.

@urusan I think it'll be hard to find examples of single individuals. What Linus did 30 years ago was just the start of a community. Solving big problems requires scale. The ability to scale human effort is the limiting factor.

@octesian Yup, it's a much harder question to answer for those reasons.

I think my pre-2009 answer of Norman Borlaug is a great example of a huge individual contribution. He was instrumental in developing the strains of wheat that went on to save billions of lives.

@octesian I also think your suggestion of Elon Musk is a potentially pretty good answer.

Everything I've read about Musk seems to indicate that he is heavily involved in running his companies, both in terms of business and engineering development.

So while his engineers and other employees are doing most of the work, Musk has a much larger personal impact than is typical.

@urusan It's probably a pointless rabbit hole to nominate people who created enabling technology. The caveman that invented the wheel would win. But, the inventor of CRISPR is probably going to have a huge impact.

@urusan Because it was a group effort does it disqualify them from your search?

@octesian No, because everything is a group effort to some extent, and definitely everything notable.

However, it's also undeniable that the value of individual contributions of different individuals is different.

If you have a group project and one of the members just coasted, perhaps putting together a single PowerPoint slide at the end, while everybody else did the work, then it would be reasonable to consider their contribution to be negligible.

@octesian The question I'm asking is ultimately subjective, as it's impossible to totally disentangle group vs individual contributions.

It'll also tend to favor people who work smarter, as that's the only way to achieve higher individual efficiency.

That said, it's still an interesting question as you'll get several different perspectives and also it's not just a question of pure smarts, as they also had to choose a socially beneficial project to work on.

@urusan Boring stuff like transportation provides huge economic multipliers. A human on a bike is the most energy efficient animal. The low friction of train rails make them incredibly efficient. The internet and planes reduce the waste of idle time.

While these things must have had an inventor, they're all accumulated incremental improvements and ultimately inevitable (in hindsight). Perhaps proving something not-impossible is the major contribution.

@octesian Hmm, in that case, another big "back in the day" contender might've been Claude Shannon:

Sign in to participate in the conversation

Fosstodon is an English speaking Mastodon instance that is open to anyone who is interested in technology; particularly free & open source software.