sponsored links
TED2013

Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems?

February 28, 2013

In 1969, Buzz Aldrin’s historical step onto the moon leapt mankind into an era of technological possibility. The awesome power of technology was to be used to solve all of our big problems. Fast forward to present day, and what's happened? Are mobile apps all we have to show for ourselves? Journalist Jason Pontin looks closely at the challenges we face to using technology effectively ... for problems that really matter.

Jason Pontin - Editor
Jason Pontin is the editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So, we used to solve big problems.
00:12
On July 21st, 1969,
00:17
Buzz Aldrin climbed out of Apollo 11's lunar module
00:20
and descended onto the Sea of Tranquility.
00:24
Armstrong and Aldrin were alone,
00:27
but their presence on the moon's gray surface
00:30
was the culmination of a convulsive, collective effort.
00:32
The Apollo program was the greatest
00:37
peacetime mobilization
00:39
in the history of the United States.
00:41
To get to the moon, NASA spent
00:43
around 180 billion dollars in today's money,
00:45
or four percent of the federal budget.
00:48
Apollo employed around 400,000 people
00:51
and demanded the collaboration of 20,000
00:54
companies, universities and government agencies.
00:57
People died, including the crew of Apollo 1.
01:01
But before the Apollo program ended,
01:05
24 men flew to the moon.
01:08
Twelve walked on its surface, of whom Aldrin,
01:10
following the death of Armstrong last year,
01:14
is now the most senior.
01:16
So why did they go?
01:18
They didn't bring much back:
01:20
841 pounds of old rocks,
01:22
and something all 24 later emphasized --
01:25
a new sense of the smallness
01:29
and the fragility of our common home.
01:32
Why did they go? The cynical answer is they went
01:35
because President Kennedy wanted to show
01:38
the Soviets that his nation had the better rockets.
01:40
But Kennedy's own words at Rice University in 1962
01:44
provide a better clue.
01:48
(Video) John F. Kennedy: But why, some say, the moon?
01:50
Why choose this as our goal?
01:53
And they may well ask,
01:56
why climb the highest mountain?
01:58
Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
02:00
Why does Rice play Texas?
02:04
We choose to go to the moon.
02:07
We choose to go to the moon.
02:09
(Applause)
02:12
We choose to go to the moon in this decade,
02:17
and do the other things,
02:20
not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
02:22
Jason Pontin: To contemporaries,
02:26
Apollo wasn't only a victory of West over East
02:28
in the Cold War.
02:31
At the time, the strongest emotion
02:33
was of wonder
02:35
at the transcendent powers of technology.
02:36
They went because it was a big thing to do.
02:40
Landing on the moon occurred in the context
02:45
of a long series of technological triumphs.
02:48
The first half of the 20th century produced
02:51
the assembly line and the airplane,
02:53
penicillin and a vaccine for tuberculosis.
02:56
In the middle years of the century,
02:59
polio was eradicated and smallpox eliminated.
03:00
Technology itself seemed to possess
03:04
what Alvin Toffler in 1970
03:06
called "accelerative thrust."
03:08
For most of human history,
03:11
we could go no faster than a horse
03:13
or a boat with a sail,
03:15
but in 1969, the crew of Apollo 10
03:18
flew at 25,000 miles an hour.
03:20
Since 1970, no human beings
03:24
have been back to the moon.
03:27
No one has traveled faster than the crew
03:29
of Apollo 10,
03:31
and blithe optimism about technology's powers
03:32
has evaporated
03:36
as big problems we had imagined technology would solve,
03:38
such as going to Mars,
03:42
creating clean energy, curing cancer,
03:44
or feeding the world have come to seem
03:47
intractably hard.
03:50
I remember watching the liftoff of Apollo 17.
03:53
I was five years old,
03:56
and my mother told me not to stare
03:59
at the fiery exhaust of a Saturn V rocket.
04:01
I vaguely knew this was to be the last
04:04
of the moon missions,
04:06
but I was absolutely certain there would be
04:08
Mars colonies in my lifetime.
04:12
So "Something happened
04:15
to our capacity to solve big problems with technology"
04:18
has become a commonplace.
04:22
You hear it all the time.
04:24
We've heard it over the last two days here at TED.
04:26
It feels as if technologists have diverted us
04:29
and enriched themselves with trivial toys,
04:33
with things like iPhones and apps and social media,
04:36
or algorithms that speed automated trading.
04:39
There's nothing wrong with most of these things.
04:43
They've expanded and enriched our lives.
04:45
But they don't solve humanity's big problems.
04:48
What happened?
04:53
So there is a parochial explanation in Silicon Valley,
04:54
which admits that it has been funding less ambitious companies
04:59
than it did in the years when it financed
05:03
Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Genentech.
05:05
Silicon Valley says the markets are to blame,
05:08
in particular the incentives that venture capitalists
05:11
offer to entrepreneurs.
05:14
Silicon Valley says that venture investing
05:15
shifted away from funding transformational ideas
05:17
and towards funding incremental problems
05:21
or even fake problems.
05:24
But I don't think that explanation is good enough.
05:26
It mostly explains what's wrong with Silicon Valley.
05:29
Even when venture capitalists were at their most
05:33
risk-happy, they preferred small investments,
05:35
tiny investments that offered an exit within 10 years.
05:38
V.C.s have always struggled
05:42
to invest profitably in technologies such as energy
05:44
whose capital requirements are huge
05:47
and whose development is long and lengthy,
05:50
and V.C.s have never, never funded the development
05:52
of technologies meant to solve big problems
05:55
that possess no immediate commercial value.
05:58
No, the reasons we can't solve big problems
06:01
are more complicated and more profound.
06:03
Sometimes we choose not to solve big problems.
06:07
We could go to Mars if we want.
06:10
NASA even has the outline of a plan.
06:13
But going to Mars would follow a political decision
06:16
with popular appeal, and that will never happen.
06:19
We won't go to Mars, because everyone thinks
06:23
there are more important things
06:25
to do here on Earth.
06:27
Sometimes, we can't solve big problems
06:30
because our political systems fail.
06:33
Today, less than two percent
06:35
of the world's energy consumption
06:37
derives from advanced, renewable sources
06:39
such as solar, wind and biofuels,
06:41
less than two percent,
06:44
and the reason is purely economic.
06:46
Coal and natural gas are cheaper
06:48
than solar and wind,
06:50
and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels.
06:52
We want alternative energy sources
06:54
that can compete on price. None exist.
06:57
Now, technologists, business leaders
07:00
and economists all basically agree
07:02
on what national policies and international treaties
07:05
would spur the development of alternative energy:
07:08
mostly, a significant increase in energy
07:12
research and development,
07:14
and some kind of price on carbon.
07:16
But there's no hope in the present political climate
07:19
that we will see U.S. energy policy
07:22
or international treaties that reflect that consensus.
07:24
Sometimes, big problems that had seemed technological
07:29
turn out not to be so.
07:34
Famines were long understood to be caused
07:35
by failures in food supply.
07:39
But 30 years of research have taught us
07:41
that famines are political crises
07:43
that catastrophically affect food distribution.
07:46
Technology can improve things like crop yields
07:49
or systems for storing and transporting food,
07:52
but there will be famines so long as there are bad governments.
07:57
Finally, big problems sometimes elude solution
08:02
because we don't really understand the problem.
08:05
President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971,
08:09
but we soon discovered
08:14
there are many kinds of cancer,
08:15
most of them fiendishly resistant to therapy,
08:18
and it is only in the last 10 years
08:21
that effective, viable therapies
08:24
have come to seem real.
08:26
Hard problems are hard.
08:28
It's not true that we can't solve big problems through technology.
08:31
We can, we must, but these four elements
08:36
must all be present:
08:39
Political leaders and the public
08:41
must care to solve a problem;
08:43
institutions must support its solution;
08:45
It must really be a technological problem;
08:48
and we must understand it.
08:51
The Apollo mission,
08:55
which has become a kind of metaphor
08:56
for technology's capacity to solve big problems,
08:59
met these criteria.
09:02
But it is an irreproducible model for the future.
09:05
It is not 1961.
09:08
There is no galvanizing contest like the Cold War,
09:10
no politician like John Kennedy
09:14
who can heroize the difficult and the dangerous,
09:16
and no popular science fictional mythology
09:19
such as exploring the solar system.
09:23
Most of all, going to the moon
09:26
turned out to be easy.
09:28
It was just three days away.
09:30
And arguably it wasn't even solving
09:32
much of a problem.
09:35
We are left alone with our day,
09:38
and the solutions of the future will be harder won.
09:42
God knows, we don't lack for the challenges.
09:47
Thank you very much.
09:50
(Applause)
09:51

sponsored links

Jason Pontin - Editor
Jason Pontin is the editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review.

Why you should listen

As the editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin looks into the future, and thinks deeply about what technologies are going to get us there. Pontin has been editor-in-chief of the magazine since 2004 and publisher since 2005, at which point he began its transition to a digital-first magazine. Pontin reduced the number of annual print issues from eleven to six while refocusing the publication's energy toward original daily content. From 1996 to 2002, Pontin was the editor of the now-defunct Red Herring magazine.

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.