TED Conversations

Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review


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"Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?"

I'll be giving a TED U Talk in Longbeach at the end of the month. I'll be asking "Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?" I think that blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I'd love to know what the TED Community thinks our difficulties are - or, even if the idea is true at all.

Here's a URL to the story I wrote in MIT Technology Review on the subject: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429690/why-we-cant-solve-big-problems/


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  • Feb 14 2013: I've been noticing a pattern. In your article with MIT Technology Review and in the comments of a number of people are lines similar to the following: "We could solve this problem if only such and such group thought or behaved differently than they do." Well, there's your answer. Focusing just on technological developments as the means of solving the world's ills is insufficient. There needs to be much more focus on how do we change people's thoughts and behaviors. These problems are best solved by behavioral scientists. Allow me to provide a more extreme example for clarity: Science is a double-edged sword. What can be used to help can also be used to harm. Eventually, people will have access to the means to do tremendous harm to other people, the environment, etc. This is a byproduct of technological advancement. If these people are malevolent, this is of tremendous concern. While it's certainly a good idea to develop vaccines and radiation detectors and other technologies to help keep us from being harmed by these malevolent actors, these technologies are insufficient when it comes to stopping the threat. Again, I suggest the solution is with the behavioral sciences. One problem is that people do not really understand or appreciate the benefits of the behavioral sciences. If a radiation detector stops a dirty bomb from entering a nation at a port, the benefits of this technology are very obvious. If a psychologist's research leads to policies that lessen extremism, causing group members to rule out using a dirty bomb in the first place, the world may never make the connection. For reasons well beyond the scope of my comments, the behavioral sciences are under appreciated in terms of their utility to help solve some of the world's biggest problems. Unfortunately, what's required to change this isn't just a funding increase in behavioral science research---it's an absolute sea change in how people view the utility of the behavioral sciences.
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      Feb 14 2013: Yes, I think that's right: the main reasons why we can't solve big problems with technology is that we either don't want or our institutions have failed. In other words, it's a human failure more than anything else.
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        Feb 15 2013: Actually we can solve poverty with technology and capitalism , would you like to know how?
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          Feb 15 2013: Yes, sure. I mean, if it's science fiction (that is, involving technologies that don't yet exist, or couldn't plausibly exist), I'll take it with a grain of salt - but, by all means, solve poverty.
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        Feb 15 2013: Ok, so the fundamental part of Capitalism is that people have to make less money so other people can make more. This can be seen in today's current economy as the 99% vs. the 1% in America. What most Americans don't realize is that the 99% of Americas are also in the top 1% of the world.
        Because I am able to run my business in a free market, my plan is to limit my employee’s salary, as well as my own, to an amount no greater than $100,000 per year for life. I already have 3 business ventures that I am currently working to get off the ground. These businesses are as follows; One in Marketing, one in 3D printing, and one that can be best described somewhat as a Jiffy Lube for nail salons. As I’ve previously stated, my employee’s and I will never make more than $100,000 a year in income. Furthermore, I plan to automate the jobs completed by my employees and create machines that will complete the work for them. However, I will still pay them their annual salary. I will be able to accomplish this with the capital received from the automated services my businesses will provide. As an employer, I don’t really care who or what does the work as long as it gets done. With the future IT companies I plan to establish, I will be able to spread Wi-Fi coverage to everyone in the country, cheaper than it’s already being done. In addition, I will also have the ability to offer more coverage in more places. I will show those employees how they can outsource their job to 3rd world workers, where they can basically double that person’s income by only paying them a tenth of what I plan to pay my employees. This will allow my employees to semi-retire and still complete all the necessary job requirements. Essentially, this method will enable me to rescue my employees as well as the 3rd world workers from a life of poverty. This can be seen as a trickledown effect, which current businesses like to pretend they already accomplish.
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        Feb 15 2013: The best part about this plan is that my “semi-retired” employees will have the buying power. Therefore, they will buy from my company instead of from my competitors. Much like a lobbyist, I will be “bribing” my employees for their loyalty in the form of the semi-retired salary, which they will make for the rest of their lives. My employees will know the more they buy from me, the more people we can rescue from poverty.
        Once I educate my employees on how money actually works, they will realize it is a juggling act and my enterprise will be the ultimate juggler. This will also allow the removal of government welfare programs, thus lowering everyone’s tax rates. This will be effective simply because I will be paying people for doing nothing. From then on they can volunteer or spend their time completing more hospitable and fulfilling activities while having job security.
        If 25% of the world companies and charities used this model instead of our current model how fast do you think we can end poverty?
    • Feb 17 2013: Well said, as a mental health professional I cannot stress how limitless the benefits could be for the human civilization, if we apply it appropriately.
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        Feb 17 2013: Thank you,

        What do you think it will take for us to apply this method? Do you think we really want to end poverty or is it just talk?
        • Feb 17 2013: " ... do we really want to end poverty ...?
          Good question !
          Maybe people want to end poverty but not for the sake of their own prosperity.
          If we solve a little problem with our big ego, big problems will become little :)
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        Feb 17 2013: Wouldn't ending poverty add prosperity?
        • Feb 17 2013: Yes, if you think globally.
          Government as an institution is meant to protect interests of the country. Its strategy is to keep poverty at a distance. As an implication, the prosperity becomes ours and poverty theirs.
          And it doesn't want to end their poverty at the expense of our prosperity.

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