Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems?

Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems?


So, we used to solve big problems. On July 21st, 1969, Buzz Aldrin climbed out of Apollo 11’s lunar module and descended onto the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong and Aldrin were alone, but their presence on the moon’s gray surface was the culmination of a convulsive, collective effort. 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. People died, including the crew of Apollo 1. But before the Apollo program ended, 24 men flew to the moon. Twelve walked on its surface, of whom Aldrin, following the death of Armstrong last year, is now the most senior. So why did they go? They didn’t bring much back: 841 pounds of old rocks, and something all 24 later emphasized — a new sense of the smallness and the fragility of our common home. Why did they go? The cynical answer is they went because President Kennedy wanted to show the Soviets that his nation had the better rockets. But Kennedy’s own words at Rice University in 1962 provide a better clue. (Video) John F. Kennedy: But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon. (Applause) We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Jason Pontin: To contemporaries, Apollo wasn’t only a victory of West over East in the Cold War. At the time, the strongest emotion was of wonder at the transcendent powers of technology. They went because it was a big thing to do. Landing on the moon occurred in the context of a long series of technological triumphs. The first half of the 20th century produced the assembly line and the airplane, penicillin and a vaccine for tuberculosis. In the middle years of the century, polio was eradicated and smallpox eliminated. Technology itself seemed to possess what Alvin Toffler in 1970 called “accelerative thrust.” For most of human history, we could go no faster than a horse or a boat with a sail, but in 1969, the crew of Apollo 10 flew at 25,000 miles an hour. Since 1970, no human beings have been back to the moon. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10, and blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems we had imagined technology would solve, such as going to Mars, creating clean energy, curing cancer, or feeding the world have come to seem intractably hard. I remember watching the liftoff of Apollo 17. I was five years old, and my mother told me not to stare at the fiery exhaust of a Saturn V rocket. I vaguely knew this was to be the last of the moon missions, but I was absolutely certain there would be Mars colonies in my lifetime. So “Something happened to our capacity to solve big problems with technology” has become a commonplace. You hear it all the time. We’ve heard it over the last two days here at TED. It feels as if technologists have diverted us and enriched themselves with trivial toys, with things like iPhones and apps and social media, or algorithms that speed automated trading. There’s nothing wrong with most of these things. They’ve expanded and enriched our lives. But they don’t solve humanity’s big problems. What happened? So there is a parochial explanation in Silicon Valley, which admits that it has been funding less ambitious companies than it did in the years when it financed Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Genentech. Silicon Valley says the markets are to blame, in particular the incentives that venture capitalists offer to entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley says that venture investing shifted away from funding transformational ideas and towards funding incremental problems or even fake problems. But I don’t think that explanation is good enough. It mostly explains what’s wrong with Silicon Valley. Even when venture capitalists were at their most risk-happy, they preferred small investments, tiny investments that offered an exit within 10 years. 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. No, the reasons we can’t solve big problems are more complicated and more profound. Sometimes we choose not to solve big problems. We could go to Mars if we want. NASA even has the outline of a plan. But going to Mars would follow a political decision with popular appeal, and that will never happen. We won’t go to Mars, because everyone thinks there are more important things to do here on Earth. Sometimes, we can’t solve big problems because our political systems fail. Today, less than two percent of the world’s energy consumption derives from advanced, renewable sources such as solar, wind and biofuels, less than two percent, and the reason is purely economic. Coal and natural gas are cheaper than solar and wind, and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels. We want alternative energy sources that can compete on price. None exist. Now, technologists, business leaders and economists all basically agree on what national policies and international treaties would spur the development of alternative energy: mostly, a significant increase in energy research and development, and some kind of price on carbon. But there’s no hope in the present political climate that we will see U.S. energy policy or international treaties that reflect that consensus. Sometimes, big problems that had seemed technological turn out not to be so. Famines were long understood to be caused by failures in food supply. But 30 years of research have taught us that famines are political crises that catastrophically affect food distribution. Technology can improve things like crop yields or systems for storing and transporting food, but there will be famines so long as there are bad governments. Finally, big problems sometimes elude solution because we don’t really understand the problem. President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, but we soon discovered there are many kinds of cancer, most of them fiendishly resistant to therapy, and it is only in the last 10 years that effective, viable therapies have come to seem real. Hard problems are hard. It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology. We can, we must, but these four elements must all be present: Political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem; institutions must support its solution; It must really be a technological problem; and we must understand it. The Apollo mission, which has become a kind of metaphor for technology’s capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria. But it is an irreproducible model for the future. It is not 1961. There is no galvanizing contest like the Cold War, no politician like John Kennedy who can heroize the difficult and the dangerous, and no popular science fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system. Most of all, going to the moon turned out to be easy. It was just three days away. And arguably it wasn’t even solving much of a problem. We are left alone with our day, and the solutions of the future will be harder won. God knows, we don’t lack for the challenges. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Danny Hutson

100 thoughts on “Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems?

  1. You are inferring unfeasibility from the contemporary standard of technology. The history of technological progress shows that such an inference is useless.

    And I'm not saying the global energy demand should be met by one source. The combined potential of all renewables — solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal, etc. — are virtually limitless.

  2. if going to the moon wasn't even a problem, then going to mars isn't a problem either.
    factually speaking we are not meant to go into space. space itself is a massive time and distance issue which our bodies and minds and technology cannot cope with.
    Are biggest problem is millions of years of honed instinct that betrays us in a modern world with modern brains. the biggest challenge is modifying our instincts.

  3. Because the US government at least is now controlled by the military and the corporations. There's the military-industrial complex which now almost completely controls every US decisions, and presidency relies on donations from corporations. You need money to become elected, and becoming the president relies on how much money you can gather from corporations. That makes the politicians dependent on corporations. Because of that, Obama is basically a puppet of the military and the corporations.

  4. Some truly civilized aliens will find us one day & start discussing: "damn, these humans are so effing stupid, they have ideas like race, nationalism, patriotism, etc. They have an obsession with skin colors and genetic differences just to see who is superior & they divided themselves with virtual walls. They see themselves as "others" & killing each other. How are we going to reunite them & explore the universe together? Mate, I give up, you do the talk with them."
    Race: Human
    Country: Earth

  5. All our problems stem from people not knowing the TRUTH of life. If you want to awaken to the TRUTH about life and death, go to truthcontest’’com and open “The Present."

  6. Yes, technology is a tool, the sad thing is there are few people in power with the means or interest to use it for much more than short term self enrichment.

  7. If it wasn't for technology in the first place, wouldn't we all just be roaming the land, trying to find food, like every other animal on the planet? Seems to me technology is only going to help solve the problems it has caused, by more than likely creating new ones in the solutions. Then again we were the ones that wanted the "easier life" technology brings, so eh, our fault.

  8. Sure, but his theory is more important than yours. Technology is simply making humans lazy and dependent on technology to make everything easier for them. Children will forget what discipline is, challenges, how to cope & react with social problems, etc. If you call that evolving then you are a complete moron.

  9. Yes, but technology is getting to the point where were forgetting ALL of our natural capabilities, and become dependent on technology to solve problems for you. I'd like to live in the 1930's where there's still USEFUL technology, where at the same time people aren't lazy fucks.

  10. Yes, we don't have to hunt with our bare hands anymore and keep watch all day for predators, we have become quite a lazy species :D. As for children having less social interaction being a problem you're completely right. My concern is with homeschooled children and how they could get a proper amount of social interaction at a young age without having to attend a very inefficient education facility. Maybe an education system based on group projects and teamwork, not writing what the teacher says.

  11. Beg to disagree. The scarce of resources has been always the origin of basically all problems, causing social problems. Economy prioritizes resources in order for human to survive. If one day (and I believe that day will come) technology helps human resolve the problem of resource scarce, our social and mindset problems will ultimately be solved.

  12. About 50% of all food in the USA goes to waste and ends up in land fills. Stores would much rather toss their unsold products than donate to those who need. Same for house holds. Think about how much food we thoe out. Consumerism!

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  14. Why have we taken a path away from our earth? Greed and more like power, I believe!…much like we all lost a simple thing as otr television which was perfectly fine, but through military greed, we all must lose and pay.

  15. What I meant was that the recreational technology is what's ruining society and children. We keep believing that were not animals, and so we do all these unnatural things throughout the day. Honestly, I would have loved to live in the 1930's where there wasn't really any recreational technology, but only had USEFUL technology. And even guns ruined how war should be, no one fights face to face anymore, which is why we have very few men now a day's without any courage or discipline

  16. Well if you want to live like in the 1930's you can do so (while respecting the current laws), I think you can even find communities of people that think exactly like you and live like that. Recreational tech does waste a huge chunk of many peoples time, but on the other hand the huge demand of recreational tech has brought many advances in technology both recreational and "useful". As for how war should be, my opinion is that it just shouldn't be. But we're a long way away from a peaceful world

  17. you think a lack of resources is the problems root? i strongly disagree. when cooperating with nature, humans can make more than enough resources for every living being on the planet. why isn't this already happening you ask? because it would be expensive. because it wouldn't be profitable.
    problems is we still depend on money, or at least we believe so. its part of our believe system inherited by culture. technology will never be utilized to its full potential as long it is restricted by money.

  18. There will be anarchy and gangs will take over and you will die. That's what's happening to places like Iraq when the US removed their government.

  19. hahaha. that's a terrible example. a million people die in iraq at the hands of United States military. they are found to have the most genetically disrupted dna in the world because of united states chemical warfare. 1 million deaths to us military. there has been less than 1000 since withdrawal.

  20. You're right about the DNA and I support your opinion for the most part, but the civilian death toll is no where near one million lol you gotta know the facts before you start bagging on other peoples opinions.

  21. I don't think there will ever be world peace, War is human nature that has been going on for thousands of years. It's also human nature for different civilizations to kind of "judge" one another, and favors THEIR culture compared to others. So… probably never if not a long time from now.

  22. Violence is decreasing exponentially and democracies are being created exponentially. Can you imagine a war between first world democracies? No. We are likely to see the end of war as we know it within one or two generations, i.e. this century and maybe in our lifetime.

  23. Mr Pontin seems a bit blind to the technological reality. Advances have been incredible and much more useful than the mostly worthless trips to the moon. Our rovers on Mars can do much more than the humans were able to do by going to the moon. The internet has made our species incredibly powerful. Renewable energy is growing exponentially now that the tech is right & advances have driven prices down. DNA decoding…the list could go on forever since it is generated faster than I can type.

  24. The only possibility to solve our social and mindset problems is to look at them at different perspectives. Technology is a tool that helps us to achieve it.

  25. without the government. there would be no military. government is the biggest gang there is in a given area. It has the distinction of claiming a monopoly on the use of violence. just because its called government, doesn't make it's actions any different from that of a gang. if your worried about the military and if people are inherently violent, as your comment about gangs taking over in the absence of government demonstrates, then why would you want inherently violent people to rule over you.

  26. You know why Japan started wars in WW2 and killed tens of millions of people? It's because the government has failed to control the military, the military ignored the central orders and went out of control. it has became its own entity. To be sure, the government, the military and corporations all keep each other in check. If one goes too far then it gets out of control.

    Without the government there would be anarchy. You would not want to live in a place without a government.

  27. when you say human nature, know that it is not something written in stone. humans are "programmed" by culture. how a human behaves, how likely it is he/she acts aggressively, how strongly one judges another based one appearance – all of that is inherited to you by your family, your friends and your environment. most people will be trapped in a specific believe system their entire lives, some however will develop a strong mind and learn to question their perception of reality.

  28. I did, it's pretty fluffy. I mean eventually, there's going to be organizations that resemble the government, the military and some sort of commerce.

  29. I wasn't saying we should capture all the solar radiation coming to Earth. The energy is so immense that only 0.07% (16 TW-yr, terawatt-year) is enough to meet the global energy demand. It would be even less if we used the other renewable sources as well.

    The global wind energy potential is 70 TW-yr — we need only up to 23%. Biomass is 20 TW-yr, Geothermal 15, OTEC 11, Hydro 4, Wave 2. No need to rely on one source to a destructive extent.

  30. so no big problens solved currently?
    a lot of research on quantum computers.
    we will have fusion in 2-3 decades propably.
    we found the higgs boson.
    genetical engineering has great capabilities and can solve famine (its being blocked by governments in europe though)
    we can revive races for example well propably have mammoths (dunno english word) roaming around in siberia pretty soon.
    several mars missions are planned just a decade away.
    space is slowly getting commercial (asteroid mining, tourism

  31. Do you mean the capacity (what can be provided by existing facilities) or the potential (what could be provided by existing & additional facilities)?

  32. Yeah, i don't know him personally, I fault him for his industry.
    TBH the problem of sensationalism is even becomming a standing problem in scientific research (ie: at universities). If your work isn't "wow!" – it can be difficult to court journals to get your work published, or attract funding. But that's not how science is supposed to work. More routine unexciting duplication of previous studies needs to be supported and expected.
    Don't let journalists tell you what problems "really matter".

  33. Right, and I said only 0.07% is enough to meet the global energy demand. (And I'm not saying we should rely solely on the solar energy.)

  34. Wind turbines have a much greater effect on the environment though… If we erected enough wind turbines to power the world, it could well be detrimental to the important weather patterns.

  35. it doesnt matter what they say when theyll have it. each time more information is researched and the propability that itll be done soon gets higher and higher obviously

  36. I cannot find a list of the state-by-state *potentials* of solar energy. What I have are lists of the state-by-state *capacities* of the installed solar power modules/plants.

    Since cross-state transmission of the power is possible, the "state-by-state" potentials aren't that much relevant here. Even less so when the collectively harnessable solar energy is so immensely abundant as to offset the extra energy cost for the long-distance transmissions.

  37. Firstly, climate is already being affected by the traditional non-renewable energy sources.

    Secondly, you are suggesting that harnessing what would be no more than 0.07% of the solar energy on Earth would somehow decrease the planet's atmospheric temperature significantly. Had that been even remotely possible, solar panel companies would have already been telling that to everyone, especially when the rising average temperature is such a talking point.

  38. All, or most of which thanks to the use of oil and fossil fuels, of which there is a decline in production.
    Fossil fules stands for about 80% of worlds energy use and nuclear just a few percent. There is no way fusion can replace all of even a big part of that.
    A lot of essential minerals for both fossil fuel and renewables are also on the decline.

    There is no question we need to change our way of life to a more sustainable one, in line with nature.

  39. Nice list man, but sorry have to disagree with the fusion and commercial asteroid mining. Its unsure if the fusion challenges can be overcome in that time frame, the Americans said they would have had the fusion problem sorted by the 80's. Its always 10 to 30 years away. As for mining man, only Elon Musk would be the best bet, as the other three agencies are seriously lagging.

  40. { So oil and gas affect climate, and that makes it ok for the alternatives to affect climate as well? }

    That's unanswerable with no proof that renewable energies can negatively affect climate in the first place.

    { 100% of that energy is a part of the current equilibrium }

    The equilibrium has already been massively disturbed by the non-renewable energies. And I don't know how replacing them with renewables could worsen the situation.

  41. May I ask how does solar power affect climate?

    CO2 basically acting as a blanket over the planet, trapping heat within the atmosphere.

    From my understanding, currently radiant energy from the rays of the sun hits the ground, some of it is absorbed and some reflected. This heat then 'transfers' the thermal energy into the atmosphere by conduction and convection.

    Panels is essentially building a platform over the ground which does more or less the same thing with the right reflective coat.

  42. { If you scale it to where solar is a viable alternative it's going to be different. }

    When you sunbathe and convert the energy into Vitamin D, does your body & environment get colder?

    Solar panels aren't a cooling device. The photovoltaic effect of solar cells arises when the light energy directly excites non-thermal electrons — no cooling. It can arise also due to the very heating of the material caused by the absorption of the light — no cooling.

  43. I see your argument, but the same thing is happening with burning fuels, huge concentration of heat at the power plants + the heat when the energy is being used in appliances.

    So essentially burning fuels is create more heat increasing the overall temperature of the planet, while solar transfers the heat from one region to another like the ocean currents are doing, basically we've created a 'current' without water.

    Which would you say is better?

  44. Also you can tinker with the absorption coefficient such as using black materials and no reflective coating, therefore keeping the local heat constant, while transferring the 'extra' absorbed energy through power lines.

    Our planet has coped with regional temperature changes by adjusting the surrounding water currents, while essentially covering the planet with a blanket (CO2) and adding an electric blanket (burning fuels) will prove much more problematic.

  45. Conservation of energy, we are not releasing heat into the atmosphere more that we otherwise would have if we get the absorption and reflection coefficient right. The planet will adjust by changing ocean currents as it as done.

    I cannot comment on the feasibility in the large scale, that I personally believe is a economic problem. But from my point of view the only not 'clean' aspect is in the production of solar panels.

  46. You can't get around creating heat with energy consumption, solar is as clean as you will get in the operational phase.

    Nuclear is great until you have accidents, contaminated water in Japan is a huge problem, even if you build it in the ocean, you will get fish and currents carry radioactive material to shore.

  47. I don't see how we are producing heat with solar where we are not by BURNING fossils, care to enlighten me? I can only see solar is disturbing heat or absorbing a little more from the Sun's radiation.

    The 2 process heat creation when BURNING and at the point of consumption is much more problematic!

    You can't get around the heat created at the point of consumption!

  48. If you agree that we can change the panel absorption and reflection than the temp at the desserts can remain the same.

    We are releasing a lot of heat there already! BURNING fuels + heat used when you turn on your heater etc…

    You can't say by burning fossil fuels, the heat created in the northern states will be less!! here is the problem with your train of thought!

    You can't get around releasing heat when you use electricity! This is compounded by BURNING fuels near northern cities!

  49. Nuclear energy is basically an advanced method of boiling water just as burning fuels, the difference is the waste created. Boiling huge pots of water around the northern states will release more heat to the atmosphere overall than redistribution of the sun's energy.

    Also I repeat, changing the reflection coefficient on the panels solves the less heat in the equator problem!

  50. i don't want to start an argument and I am certainly not anti science or ethically opposed to genetic engineering, but genetic engineering has done nothing to solve famine. If anything it has done the opposite. More calories can be produced per acre using ecological farming methods than any other system. And remember we don't have a food problem (there is plenty of food for everyone in the world), we have a distribution problem, which GE does nothing to solve.

  51. Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased by 30% or so since the industrial revolution. That's not a few percent of the natural level. Same with nitrous oxide and methane – levels increased in a steep curve. That's not evidence for human influence, but looks kinda right.

  52. CO2 levels of Earth's atmosphere have been on the level of ~1800 for many thousands of years. When mankind started to get their hands on big amounts of fossil fuels, they've gone up about 30%.
    Don't mistake absolute concentration for gas emission. Most life makes CO2 – trees, animals, humans. So do wild fires.
    If normal earth processes would have been the cause, the concentration wouldn't have been that stable. The biosphere absorbs about as much CO2 as it produces.

  53. Interesting talk, it is true there are many hard problems to solve. I think energy storage and transportation is one of the biggest scientific problems we have at the moment. Battery tech has gotten better but unlike other areas of technology that are growing exponentially energy storage solutions are still growing at a snails pace. There are many places (deserts, ocean tides, etc) that can generate large amounts of natural energy if only we could store it efficiently and move it without loss.

  54. What a load of BS. The only reason why people think this is happening is that great scientific achievements are becomming too abstract. When the higgs was discovered for instance, not a single one of my local news papers even mentioned it.

  55. The speaker is complaining about the masses being unwilling to get stuck with higher energy bills and higher tax's…I like democracy,myself…When the ,time,tech,and resources are to an affordable level America will go to Mars….

  56. most of the problems can be solved using technology if there is concerted effort from all the stake holders! Alleviating hunger is not an issue if all mind

  57. Why is not having mars colonies a big problem? There are much bigger problem like social inequalities, inhumane intensive mass animal farming, wars, child labour or climate change. Not having visisted mars intensively yet isn´t a very fitting example.

  58. Lately, I am also been thinking… What are my works for? Why I am so much passionate about technology that won't even solve my own problem? Why we are solving big organization problems ignoring major problems like war, education, poverty, health and much more.

  59. Writting to those in the year 2024 who are witnessing or are close to witnessing humans going to Mars. Hi from the year 2017 🙂 Greetings from an uncertain year… The past.

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