DesiderataFirst, a little bit about what i'm looking for.
I am convinced that a capable computer programmer can build things of great benefit to the world. I'm not trying to be arrogant; i just think it's true because software and networking enable inventions to spread at incredible speed, and a single person can launch one with nothing more than a laptop and an Internet connection. The software industry is unique in this respect. It only took one person to invent HTML and two people to start Google or Wikipedia. Individual programmers have created things as powerful as Napster (at age 19), Facebook (at age 20?), and BitTorrent (at age 26). So, from a certain perspective, i'm already way behind the game in terms of fulfilling potential.
That's my primary goal: for my existence to have yielded things of benefit to the world — hopefully, of significant benefit to many people. That means my decisions hinge on a calculus of benefit, which is of course a complicated and subjective thing. I often find myself feeling like the stonecutter in the fable as i chase down chains of logic trying to figure out how to achieve maximum benefit. In any case, my current line of thinking is that there are five factors in choosing the most beneficial option:
- number of people who benefit
- degree of impact of the project
- degree of my personal impact on the project
- likelihood of success
- necessity of my participation
The last factor implies that there has to be something about my skills that fits the project — if the job i do is something that would have been done by someone else anyway, then my choice to join the project has little effect. And the ultimate choice, in terms of the last factor, would be to start and launch something of my own, provided it doesn't duplicate something that already exists.
I think of these five factors as combining in a roughly multiplicative way — a × b × c × d × e is the approximate expected utility of making a particular career choice. (Let me know if you notice factors i've forgotten.) Notwithstanding all that, i am biased toward projects that benefit a large number of people and/or people who are less fortunate. I don't know to what extent this is because they are truly more useful, or because i want to be famous or seen as noble. But whatever the reason, it matters to me to do work whose benefit most people can understand.
What is the most important problem?There's a saying about how to win a game of Go: simply always make the biggest move. Each stone you play will affect the final score somehow; if you choose moves that are worth more than your opponent's moves, you're bound to win. The hard part is evaluating what each move is worth.
I don't expect to save the world by myself, but i'll get further if i have the conviction to focus on something rather than dabbling in a lot of different projects. So, i feel it's time for me to pick a big problem to attack, and after i've chosen it, to go as far down that road as possible. The question is what problem to choose.
Below are some possible answers, presented as arguments by imaginary people (members of the committee in my head, you might say). I've also broken these out into top-level comments by me below so you can comment on them individually.
1. Energy crisisAll the things that support our modern society and well-being — production, transportation, manufacturing, health, communication, defense — run on energy extracted from our environment. Literally everything either uses energy or is produced by a process that consumes energy. Our energy extraction and consumption is starting to run into limits. Without an energy source that is efficient, affordable, doesn't start wars, and doesn't cause significant climate change, all of humanity is in deep trouble.
Therefore, the most valuable thing for you to do, Ping, is to devote your technical and engineering skills to developing renewable sources of energy or ways to conserve energy. It doesn't matter that this is a new area for you; you can learn, and we need all the help we can get on this problem. The potential damage caused by global climate change is so enormous that if we fail, nothing else will matter.
2. Computer securityEnergy is an important problem, but it doesn't match your skill set. Other people are working on that problem. But all the same things that are listed in #1 as essential parts of our modern society and well-being also heavily depend on computer software. Computers are in control of ever more powerful things both virtual (governments, banks, financial transactions, personal information) and real (factories, weapons, critical infrastructure). Yet, even as we become more dependent on them, they are becoming less and less reliable. They break down often; they are hard to use; they behave and misbehave in unpredictable ways. And they are vulnerable to attack. As we rely on them more, small bugs, vulnerabilities, and human mistakes will have more and more catastrophic effects.
The computer science community needs to collectively bring about a change in the way we design and build software, and you're in a position to play a significant part in this effort. A combined approach to usability and security is essential to solving this problem, and you've brought them together in your previous research. Capability-based security thinking is also essential; you understand the capability ideas, and you're well-connected with the main players in that area. They are strong, but few. Join them. You already have momentum in this direction; use it to help them push the software world onto the right path.
3. Poverty and educationThe real problem is peace. Without peace, we have nothing. Conflict comes about because of suffering, misunderstanding, and disparities between groups of people. The most effective way to bring a lasting end to poverty is education. To create understanding between different cultures requires education. To develop higher standards of living, address health problems, and start successful businesses requires education. To help people understand democracy and human rights requires education. To spread awareness of societies that are freer, fairer, and more humane requires education. The most powerful thing you can do is to help bring educational tools and global communication to those that don't have them.
The problem is urgent. Time is short. Increasingly destructive weapons are available to increasingly many people. International conflict is becoming more and more dangerous. The tools of peace and the tools of war are in a race, and you must help accelerate the tools of peace if peace is to prevail.
4. Governance and democracyThe real power is in the hands of governments. Peace is not achievable when politicians in powerful countries can deceive their citizens and launch wars with impunity. Solving the energy crisis, improving public health, safeguarding the environment, and the other big challenges are all dependent on politicians making good decisions.
But in the most powerful country of all, the United States, democracy is broken. Time after time, the political system arrives at the wrong answers to even the most straightforward and well-understood questions — whether retroactive copyright extension promotes the creation of new works (it doesn't), whether climate change is real (it is), how much it will cost to invade Iraq ($500 billion and counting) — despite objective analysis and a clear consensus. That's because the system is corrupt: the decision-making process is distorted by money and lobbyists, whose influence is so strong that it can obliterate facts.
The only way to restore democracy is to hold politicians accountable to the people who vote for them, instead of the lobbyists who appeal to their financial self-interest. Part of the problem is to fix the voting machinery and the method of counting votes to determine the winner; you've already done some thinking along those lines. The other part of the problem is to make the votes actually mean something — in order for votes to actually carry some power, government needs to be more transparent and accessible. Citizens need ways to understand what their elected officials are doing, hold them responsible for keeping their promises, and evaluate their campaign rhetoric in light of their actions. The UK has tools like theyworkforyou.com and hearfromyourmp.com; the United States and other countries need tools like these as well, and more. You can make this happen. Now is your chance to apply your web development, design, and information visualization skills, and use the power of the Internet to help fix democracy.
5. Media and journalismHolding politicians accountable to their voters doesn't do any good if the voters are wrong. The idea that democracy will produce the right answers — faith in the wisdom of crowds — ignores the susceptibility of the populace to media influence. The media are biased to serve their own interests (for example, they aren't exactly eager to discuss media regulation, and prefer to emphasize the sensational over the significant) and are beholden to advertisers as well. Politicians aren't the only ones that put out misleading advertisements; corporate marketing departments regularly distort the truth too.
The conflict of interest inherent in commercial media makes it difficult for most citizens to get getting accurate, unbiased information on which to base not only their votes but also their purchasing decisions. The only way to solve this problem is to hold the media — and all sources of information — accountable for getting it right. The alternative of replacing the centralized media with a more distributed system like Wikipedia or OhMyNews is also appealing, but even if that were to happen, we would still need a way to hold sources accountable for their accuracy.
You made a start at tackling this problem before, when you tried to enable public annotation of web pages; there is plenty more that can be done to help the public substantively critique and compare news articles, blog posts, and primary sources. There is an unmet need here for a way to settle on facts backed by evidence and consensus — something like a Snopes for the media, with a participatory and scientific process. You've been wanting to create something like this for a long time; now you can make it real.
6. Decision-making and collective intelligenceThe most urgent problem is to improve our ability to solve complex and urgent problems. Finding solutions is about much more than facts. Questions like how to address global climate change, whether nuclear power is safe, how to design secure computer software, and how to improve public health are complex and intricate. Right now, finding and evaluating solutions to these problems is a tremendously inefficient process of researching a mountain of literature, with a high likelihood of replaying misunderstandings and logical errors that have been made many times. This inefficiency also leads to fractured communities of experts with each one holding a narrow point of view, reinforced by the small segment of the literature with which they are familiar. The Internet has made access to literature faster, but has made the literature itself no more accurate or easier to integrate.
To be able to deal with the increasingly complex and urgent problems we face, communities of scientists and experts need more effective ways to lay out their evidence and their arguments, evaluate them, and rapidly arrive at a consensus. The status quo is decades of controversy and debate, sometimes with failed public policy experiments carried out at devastating cost. It is doubtful that we can afford to keep doing things this way. You've been interested in collective intelligence for a long time, and have dreamed of better ways to organize discussion and argumentation online, and to help sound reasoning win out over logical fallacies. Carry out that dream.
Your opinions here...Which answer sounds the most compelling to you? Are there other good options i've failed to identify? I'm interested in your thoughts.
Update: I've already received several suggestions of the form, "Do what you enjoy." It's good advice, yes, but i should probably explain why i've intentionally left that out of this particular analysis:
- For me, enjoyment and motivation go hand in hand. If i realize that what i'm doing isn't that significant after all, the motivation will go away and i'll stop enjoying it. So part of the point of this exercise is to construct an argument strong enough for whatever choice i make, such that i can maintain conviction in my choice and continue to enjoy it, long enough to actually achieve something.
- Also, there's something that feels intellectually dishonest about choosing an answer just because i like it rather than because it's right. I'm hoping to find more solid grounding for my decision.