In 1900, David Hilbert published a list of 23 problems that he proposed would be the important ones for mathematicians to solve in the upcoming century. That list led to a focused effort that lasted a century, and the vast majority of the problems have been fully or partially solved. Ignoramus et ignorabimus is a foolish statement. We can know, and one day, we will.
Technology (the technology of connection, of devices and of knowledge) can create a surplus. The cost of light, of transport and of food has dropped by orders of magnitude in just a few lifetimes. Most of us waste electricity, water and other essentials in ways that would have been astonishing just a generation ago. Privileged populations go to the doctor for illnesses that wouldn’t even be a topic for discussion among those with less access to the surplus that we’ve created in access to healthcare.
Surely, we can build a better future with technology instead of focusing on autonomous drone delivery of a latte 9 blocks away in San Francisco.
As we enter a new year, one in which technology promises to move faster than ever, it’s worth considering what our 23 problems might be. (Hilbert left one off his list, and others have created very different lists–there’s no right answer).
A personal list is a great place to start (because, after all, you’ve solved much of what confronted you a decade ago). Technology doesn’t have to be high-tech. It can simply be the hard work of finding generous solutions to important problems, big or small.
Our next steps might be far more effective than simple resolutions, which are easily ignored or pushed aside. We can work toward dignity, toward access, toward seeing the world as it is…
As citizens, creators and consumers, each of us can also propose a more global list. To get you started, here are some that come to mind for the next decades. Feel free to publish your own list, which is likely to be better informed and more nuanced, but here you go…
[This list seems ridiculous until you realize that in the last few generations, we created vaccines, antibiotics, smartphones, GPS and the Furby].
1. High efficiency, sustainable method for growing sufficient food, including market-shifting replacements for animals as food
2. High efficiency, renewable energy sources and useful batteries (cost, weight, efficiency)
3. Effective approaches to human trafficking
4. Carbon sequestration at scale
5. Breakthrough form for democracy in a digital age
6. Scalable, profitable, sustainable methods for small-scale creators of intellectual property
7. Replacement for the University
8. Useful methods for enhancing, scaling or replacing primary education, particularly literacy
9. Beneficial man/machine interface (post Xerox Parc)
10. Cost efficient housing at scale
11. Useful response to urban congestion
12. Gene therapies for obesity, cancer and chronic degenerative diseases
13. Dramatic leaps of AI interactions with humans
14. Alternatives to paid labor for most humans
15. Successful interactions with intelligent species off Earth
16. Self-cloning of organs for replacement
17. Cultural and nation-state conflict resolution and de-escalation
18. Dramatically new artistic methods for expression
19. Useful enhancements to intellect and mind for individuals
20. Shift in approach to end-of-life suffering and solutions for pain
21. Enhanced peer-to-peer communication technologies approaching the feeling of telepathy
22. Transmutation of matter to different elements and structures
23. Off-planet outposts
It’s going to get interesting. Especially if we can imagine it.