Jason Pontin is the editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review. His 2014 TED Talk is titled: Can technology solve our big problems? (10/4/2014). Examples of really big problems include: global warming; an increasing shortage of fresh water; sustainability; worldwide poverty, hunger, disease, and education; and war and terrorism.

Here is Pontin’s summary of four conditions that he argues must all be present if technology is going to help solve really big problems in a top-down manner:

All four conditions were present in the Apollo astronaut project. At the current time, there are many big problems, but none appear to satisfy all four conditions.

Transporting People to the Moon and Back

In his 1961 Inauguration Address, John F. Kennedy said:

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” (John F. Kennedy; 35thPresident of the United States; 1917-1963.)

Quoting again from Pontin’s TED Talk:

The Apollo program was the greatest peacetime mobilization in the history of the United States. To get to the moon, NASA spent around 180 billion dollars in today's money, or four percent of the federal budget. Apollo employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of 20,000 companies, universities and government agencies.

Our country had the resources and the technological knowledge and skills to undertake and accomplish this huge task. Although considerable technological progress occurred as a result of the investments being made, no fundamental new “far our” discoveries were needed to accomplish the task.

War on Cancer

The War on Cancer is an example in which the fourth condition (we must understand the problem) was not satisfied. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Cancer.” Quoting from the National Cancer Institute (NCI, n.d.):

In 1970, the American people made clear their desire for a cure for the second-leading cause of death in the United States. President Nixon responded during his January 1971 State of the Union address: "I will also ask for an appropriation of an extra $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, and I will ask later for whatever additional funds can effectively be used. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal."

Big problems sometimes elude solution because we don't really understand the problem. In this case, we soon discovered there are many kinds of cancer, most of them fiendishly resistant to therapy. By 2009, $30 billion had been spent by the U.S. federal government, and very little progress had occurred.

We are gradually coming to understand the cancer problem, and we have begun to develop technology to help us attack the problem. However, during the 1971-2009 time period, we made more progress in the cancer problem area by reducing the number of people who smoke than by all of the rest of our research progress put together. It is only in the last 10 years that effective, viable therapies have come to seem real. In 2010, heart disease (596,557 deaths) and cancer (576,691 deaths) were by far the leading causes of death in the United States.

The $30 billion from the U.S. Federal Government, along with a subsequent $2 billion or so a year, is only part of the money that has been spent. Many non-profit foundations have contributed to this task, and many for-profit companies are working on it.

Roles of For-profit Corporations

There are many big problems that can be attacked by for-profit corporations. IBM is a leading corporation in research spending. It has a research budget of about $6 billion a year. Recently it announced a five-year plan to spend $600 million a year (a total of $3 billion) in one project area. Quoting from Konrad (7/10/2014):

IBM’s spending much of its $3 billion to push for 7 nm silicon chips. As research executive John Kelly said in a statement in the company’s release, IBM is no longer doubtful whether 7 nm is possible—the question is how to produce them at acceptable prices.

Much of the money, however, is allocated to post-silicon technologies that are still more commercial pipe dreams, but will be needed to make chips brawny and low-powered enough to handle advanced computing needs. They include quantum computing, neurosynaptic computing that makes the chip channel data more like a human brain, and silicon photonics that transmit pulses of light instead of using physical copper wire.

When a company makes such a long-term research commitment, it believes it will pay off. Notice that five years is about half the length of the Apollo project, and $3 billion to be spent over five years is about 1/3 of what the Apollo project cost per year.

Jason Pontin argues that for-profit corporations are unwilling to make the types of investments needed to address the really big world problems:

Even when venture capitalists were at their most risk-happy, they preferred small investments, tiny investments that offered an exit within 10 years. Venture Capitalists (V.C.s) have always struggled to invest profitably in technologies such as energy whose capital requirements are huge and whose development is long and lengthy, and V.C.s have never, never funded the development of technologies meant to solve big problems that possess no immediate commercial value (Pontin, 10/4/2014).

Summary

At the current time, the U.S. government is not engaged in any long-term massive project that satisfies Pontin’s four conditions. Our current political wrangling makes it very difficult to achieve either the political will or the federal funding for such a project.

Similarly, on a worldwide basis we lack the political will and funding to successfully attack major problems facing our world.

In my next IAE Blog entry I will explore how technology has opened up a new way to attack some of these problems.

What You Can Do

To begin, wrap your mind around some of the world’s and your country’s really big problems. How would major progress in addressing these problems contribute to long-term improved quality of life for large numbers of people?

Select one of the problems that particularly interests and concerns you. Think about what you, personally, can do to address and help to make progress on a very small part of the problem. Try out some of the ideas that occur to you, and share your ideas, successes, and failures with others.

References

Kennedy, J. (5/25/1961). Speech in person before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961. Space.com. Retrieved 2/4/2015 from http://www.space.com/11772-president-kennedy-historic-speech-moon-space.html.

Konrad, A. (7/10/2014).Why IBM just bet $3 billion of its research budget on the death of Moore’s Law. Forbes. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2014/07/10/why-ibm-just-bet-10-of-its-research-budget-on-3-billion-next-gen-chips/.

NCI (n.d.). Milestone (1971). National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://dtp.nci.nih.gov/timeline/noflash/milestones/m4_nixon.htm.

Pontin, J. (10/4/2014). Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems? TED Talks. Retrieved 2/4/2015 from http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_pontin_can_technology_solve_our_big_problems?language=en.

Suggested Readings from IAE Publications

Moursund, D. (11/22/2014). Big data: A new facet of science research. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/big-data-a-new-facet-of-science-research.html.

Moursund, D. (9/6/2014). Assessing and teaching creative problem solving. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/creative-problem-solving.html.

Moursund, D. (2014). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.

Moursund, D. (2014). Problem solving. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Problem_Solving.

Moursund, D. (February, 2011). Assessing student achievement in difficult to assess curricular areas: Problem solving. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 2/5/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2011-59.html.

Moursund, D. (2011). Introduction to problem solving in the Information Age. Eugene, OR. Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/206-introduction-to-problem-solving-in-the-information-age-3.html and the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/205-introduction-to-problem-solving-in-the-information-age-2.html.