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 20 2013: The human race has stumbled past the point at which technological marvels are marvelous. We now all expect that this progress will continue forever...and likely it will. History has shown that we always underestimate technological progress in the same way we over estimate our rationality.

    Humans still allow themselves to be driven like chaff in the hurricane of their technology. Man has yet to learn how to design his future. Presently, virtually all models of Utopian society are smoothly running masses with an equitable few at the top running the show. The issue is that every persons vision has themselves at the top. This is as true today with American hegemony as it was with old Rome. There are no benevolent kings.

    The next great breakthrough in human history will not be technological, it will be spiritual. Not in the sense of religion or some new twist on Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Voodoo or the like, but rather a fundamental change in the way we view ourselves, our relationships with each other and our relationship with the universe.

    In a way, we cannot solve any of the really big problems until we learn this collectively. At some point technology will eventually kill any species that does not solve this issue. In fifty years time, every high school biology lab will have the technological capability to design a virus that can wipe out humanity. Every new technology can either be a tool or a weapon. The difference is not in the technology, it is within ourselves.

    It is an irony that any species that has the technology to achieve interstellar space travel must be, by necessity, both highly spiritual and moral. You cannot survive the technology between the flint knife and faster than light travel without morality, compassion, cooperation and love.

    In the case of Earth, this may require a couple more resets.

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