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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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    Mar 4 2013: Another interesting question to ponder is: Are problems becoming harder and harder to solve? What I mean by this is that the complexity of modern problems are vastly incomparable to the ones humans faced at the dawn of human civilisation. Are we slowly moving towards some form of intellectual steady state, after which we would run out of steam to solve the most intractable problems of our era? Sounds pretty Malthusian to me. Food for thought though.

    I think there are many reasons why we struggle with big problems. One of them the overwhelmingly complexity of our world; we struggle even to understand the workings of our own planet, not to mention everything else out there. Even with exponential leaps in industrialisation, we struggle against stuff we cannot fully comprehend, from deadly microorganisms to strange physical phenomena.

    Then there is the failure to tap fully into human potential. Wars, corruption, poverty, disease and extremism remain rampant in developing countries and the political tussles between the West and Middle East continue. Globalisation is making progress in empowering all humans with greater prosperity (and henceforth the capacity to solve big problems), but it hijacked by problems of gross inequality. Until we solve these problems, we cannot focus on big problems.

    The strangeness of the world is also interesting. Inventions in the modern world is increasingly driven by the incentives that come with industrialisation. But perhaps not everything that can be learnt about the world has benefits attached to it, and so we may never learn some things.
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      Mar 4 2013: Yes, I believe that we solved many of the easy problems. In my original essay I wrote, "Hard problems are hard." If you think about the biotechnology revolution, for instance, all the early drugs were essential replacement therapies for proteins we already fully understood and were already manufacturing in less efficient ways. We already knew how to make human insulin and human growth hormone. Biotech just coaxed e.coli bacteria to manufacture them for us. Truly novel therapeutics have been harder to create.
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      Mar 4 2013: Ethan and Jason,
      Good point, that our world is more and more complex all the time. I honestly don't think we will "run out of steam to solve the most intractable problems" Ethan. I believe that as we continue to evolve, we create. While we have more complex challenges, we also have more complex systems and technology to help provide solutions.....do we not?

      I suggest that we may look back at challenges as "easy problems", and they may NOT have seemed so easy at the time. Hindsight is wonderful....is it not? You say we "already knew" about some things. There was a time when we did NOT know, and we were challenged....just as we are now.

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