Applying distance-to-frontier analysis, we have used 2.9 million patents and population data to assess whether the relative capacity of world countries and major regions to create new knowledge and technology has become globally more equal or less equal between 1990 and 2010. We show with the Gini coefficient that the global distribution of inventors has become more equal between major countries and regions. However, this trend has been largely due to the improved performance of only two major countries, China and India. The worst performing regions, totalling a population of almost 2 billion, are actually falling behind. Our results suggest that substantial parts of the global population have fallen further behind countries at the global frontier in their ability to create new knowledge and inventions, and that the catch-up among the least developed and middle-income countries is highly uneven, prompting questions about the nature and future of the global knowledge economy.