Eight Open Problems

Challenges for the coming decade

Yonatan Zunger
Nov 13, 2016 · 5 min read

Once a year or so, I try to do an exercise of scanning through major problems in the world and identifying important ones, to make sure that what I’m doing aligns with real priorities. This is an exercise primarily in identifying the important rather than the urgent; the meteor that’s going to kill you in ten years, rather than the stubbed toe that hurts right now.

This year, I scribbled down a tentative list on November 8th, the morning of the election. A few days later, the core of the list still seems to be right, although I would shuffle priorities within them some based on changes in urgency. (And there are other, purely urgent, problems which have now come on the radar)

(Note: I’m hosting a public discussion about this here, with a main goal of soliciting other people’s ideas about what should be on this list. If you have thoughts, head over there and discuss! I expect to write an update of this pulling more people’s thoughts in)

While obviously none of us can solve these problems on our own, the list seems solid enough to be worth sharing. In no particular order, these are:

Critical infrastructure protection: There’s an amazing amount of infra we depend on to keep people alive, from food transport to sewage to electricity, and yet our protection of these systems against both large-scale disaster and deliberate sabotage is utter shite. This is one of those problems that looks totally fine until the day it suddenly is very much not fine.

Intelligent assistance: How do we make computers able to actually help us in our daily lives? We’re moving past the age of gimmickry and into a place where I would love to give every person on the planet their own personal assistant, something which previously only the very rich had, to actually help them be safe and take care of themselves. (This one is my current day job)

The changing nature of privacy: A lot of our assumptions about how we interact with one another follow from ideas of which space is exposed to public examination and which isn’t. This is changing a lot, and it’s a hard thing to adapt to; e.g., random individuals are suddenly dealing with being on the receiving end of parasocial relationships in a way that previously only celebrities (who had an infrastructure to help them) did. Understand this and figure out new ways for people to live in a changing world which make them feel safe.

The changing nature of work: Increasing productivity per worker means increasing wealth for the society, and it leads to increasing rewards for workers, up to the point where total productivity for a good passes the point of diminishing returns. At that point, you can produce all the widgets you want with fewer workers. We’re passing that point not just for single items, but for production as a whole, which means that the net number of jobs has no chance of keeping pace with the net number of people. Yet we use work for two purposes in our society: to create resources (by production) and to allocate them (by wages / commissions / etc). So it’s very easy to “starve in the midst of plenty,” with goods becoming incredibly cheap and nobody able to afford them because they’re unemployed. Worse, this happens differentially, knocking out different groups of people first. That creates large groups of desperate people who are easy prey for some of the issues below.

Adapting to a shifting environment: In case you haven’t noticed, the climate is changing fast. Major droughts affecting crop production, and major natural disasters affecting entire cities, are now routine. Those effects have huge ripples; the Arab Spring was basically triggered by a drought across Asia, which impacted grain production from Syria into Russia. When major food-chain–impacting events start to hit places like the Ganges or Yangtze basins, with literally billions of people affected, what happens next?

I call this one “CASE NIGHTMARE BROWN.”¹ Honestly, it’s the one that I have the least idea of how to resolve at this point, and the one most certain to kill us all if we don’t. People who know this field often don’t talk about the serious numbers behind this, because if they did, they would either be derided as having a political agenda, be ignored as madmen, or trigger mass hysteria, because the actual situation is very, very, bad.

Journalism: We need it. And yet the economic underpinnings which make it possible haven’t worked well since the 1990’s. It’s the primary stabilizer and bulwark most of our society has had against everything from corruption to dictatorship for centuries, and we need to find a way to keep it running.

Tribalism: It’s going to kill us all. See also fascism and Nazism. “Why is your group getting anything good, when our group needs something?” is a very good way to get people to kill one another and not solve anything else. I’ve seen what tribalism does when unchecked, and this is the only one more likely to kill the lot of us than CASE NIGHTMARE BROWN — if only because it’s faster. And the side effects of both the shifting nature of work and of a collapsing natural environment only accelerate that.

This issue has acquired a great deal of life-threatening urgency in the past 96 hours.

Artificial intelligence is easy. What does artificial wisdom look like? We’ve made tremendous progress in AI in the past few years, and are on a track to make even more in the next few. But the tools are only as good as the uses they’re put to. Can we adapt these technologies and techniques to ensuring that they’re put to good use?


¹ For those unfamiliar with Charles Stross’ works, his CASE NIGHTMARE RAINBOW scenarios are “existential anthropic threats — as in, they’re types of event associated with extinction-level outcomes if we get them wrong the very first time we encounter them.” These were meant somewhat laughingly (CASE NIGHTMARE BLUE, for example, involves Cthulhu rising from the depths) but the underlying idea is ha-ha-only-serious. The complete collapse of the ecosystem which we rely on for food and for avoiding massive plagues would be a good example.

I suggest “CASE NIGHTMARE BROWN” for this one, not only because brown is the color of dying crops, but because when actually faced with the consequences, the results are likely to produce a great deal of brown.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Yonatan Zunger

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Either political analysis of authoritarian regimes, or interesting facts about science, depending on my mood.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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