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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  • Mar 5 2013: Technology will be part of solving big problems but it is only a tool for it. People will always look after their own self interest which is the main reason most big problems have not been solved or even why more problems have been created. The internet itself is an amazing tool to share information and ideas but it eventually evolved into a mechanism for people and businesses to make money. Sure their are a lot of people who use technology to do good things and work to solve problems but the underlying theme has always and will always be human nature to advance for its own self interest. If that wasn't the case their would not be such a huge inequality which creates many of the world's big problems.

    It does feel like society is changing course a bit and it becoming more focused on the greater good for all which in turn will help the individual (self interest). Technology is helping this movement a huge way mainly because it helps spread the message about different causes and reasons to help make things better. Generally people tend to have a "herd" mentality and as the direction of the "herd" is changed by influential people it will, over time, generally will start to move in that direction. It seems like the overall direction is starting to set a new course but it takes generations for that to happen. Technology is making that change quicker and more efficient but overall it is still the people who control which direction that is taken.

    We are using a simple concept along with technology to help move things in that direction. We use technology to allow people to Do Well by Doing Good which will give people some sense of future security by doing good deeds. Incentivizing people has always worked for our economy as a whole advance with incredible strides but hasn't really been used for the advancement of good causes (causes for some reason stigmatize using incentives) . We think it is time to change that, www.RepaySomeday.com Thanks for reading!
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      Mar 5 2013: Dave,
      I agree with most of what you write....technology is a tool, which helps us find solutions...inequality creates many of the world's challenges.....it feels like society is changing course....people have a "herd" mentality, and as the direction of the herd is changed over time, it will move people in that direction...technology is making that change quicker and more efficient.....all good ideas!

      I think/feel that some folks have thoughts, feelings, ideas, actions, reactions which serve personal interests and personal financial gain, and some folks strive to create actions that manifest into gain for the global communuity. Do you think that with the changes you mention, we (humans) are beginning to understand and embrace the idea that we can evolve in ourselves as individuals, AND contribute to the global community AT THE SAME TIME? It feels like this is the balance we are seeking?
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      Mar 5 2013: Dave, There is some wisdom in your views on the positive focus of doing well by doing good.
      What concerns me is historically, this is not a new idea and has not always been successful.
      Consider; Christians will tell you that Jesus embodies this message. Muslins will say it is Mohammed, then there is Buddha, the list goes on. In many cases, individuals came to promote these philosophies with literally fire and brimstone proclaiming "do my good or dying not so well". We see this happening today.

      Is there a biological thing of the Alpha-alpha gene? Does the human species have to evolve into another species where we can come together as a global society, because it's unlikely to happen any time soon. Or do we use all this new great technology to just eradicate the species?

      One wag has said that in the event all the global disaster prophets are correct, maybe there will be enough human survivors with knowledge to do it right the next time. But, probably not.
      • Mar 5 2013: Mike, I understand what you are saying about the tag line I use "Do Well by Doing Good" but it is not aimed at saving all of society and the problems it has. I have always said my idea is simple but it could generate some changes if a large enough amount of people join in. And really the idea is more geared toward trying to make things a little more fair. It is kind of a longer read but if you take a look at the website www.RepaySomeday.com and read the page titled "The Reason" you will understand where I'm coming from.

        And very briefly, my thoughts are that most people want to do good deeds and/or help other people. But doing so, more than just doing minimal amounts, conflicts with a person's efforts to make sure they and their family are secure in the future. Besides those who live lavishly, most people concentrate on working to buy life insurance, save for retirement, kids education, etc and the basics to make sure they feel "comfortable" for the future. The idea is just as companies incentivize people to work harder and longer so those people can provide for their families, I think the concept of doing good should have the same type of incentive. My idea is in a basic form now but if you could concentrate more on doing good deeds knowing those good deeds can result in you and your family being secure in the future, than you can concentrate more on doing those good deeds. Hopefully the page on the website explains the idea and the reasoning behind it.

        So overall, I think if people can concentrate more on doing good things for others, the people receiving the good deeds will be better and the people offering the deeds will be able to continue to do more. Hopefully resulting in a snowball affect of more people helping each other.
        Thanks for your comments and insight.

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