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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 23 2013: Because technology is just a tool, not an intelligence in itself. Technology is a very poor innovator, has no intuition whatsoever and is not cognizant of the human sensibilities it is supposed to serve.

    We seem to have lost sight of the notion that humans are supposed to be the master intelligence - not the technology we ourselves have created.

    In short, the bright sparks of imagination, intuition and innovation required to come up with solutions to big problems have got hopelessly lost in a thick fog of technology, administrative procedures, lawsuits, health and safety legislation and politics - to name but a few.
    • Marc J

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      Feb 23 2013: Hear, hear! To borrow a phrase, "the mind is a terrible thing to waste!"
    • W T 100+

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      Feb 23 2013: I remember when they started installing "smartboards" in our school.

      I thought to myself, what the school needs is more "smart teachers"....not another techy toy which half the faculty will just let hang around collecting dust.

      I second Marc's statement!!
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      Feb 24 2013: Did you miss Pontin's point here, "technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys."?
      If technology is just a "tool" what work is be being used for? My guess is that it is busy keeping us pacified and entertained, perhaps "distracted" from the real problems is the best way to put it..

      But these tools can and are being used in innovative new ways in areas of the world where survival depends on them. Charles Leadbeater describes this in his TEDTalk:

      " Because actually radical innovation does sometimes come from the very best, but it often comes from places where you have huge need -- unmet, latent demand -- and not enough resources for traditional solutions to work -- traditional, high-cost solutions, which depend on professionals, which is what schools and hospitals are."

      Education is one of these areas where as Leadbeater says: "Our education systems all work on the principle that there is a payoff, but you have to wait quite a long time. That's too long if you're poor. Waiting 10 years for the payoff from education is too long when you need to meet daily needs, when you've got siblings to look after or a business to help with. So you need education to be relevant and help people to make a living there and then, often. And you also need to make it intrinsically interesting."

      He adds, "....science has opened up successively different vantage points from which we can see ourselves, and that's why it's so valuable. So the vantage point you take determines virtually everything that you will see. The question that you will ask will determine much of the answer that you get."

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        Feb 24 2013: Hi Theodore. Yes, I guess I did miss that, and it's a good point about diverting 'trivial toys'

        Thanks for the Charles Leadbeater link!

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