Feynman had this concept of 12 important questions and every new idea or thought he came across throughout his life he’d try to contextualize within one of those questions. The idea is to build this ongoing thread of new insights for each question and continue to pull each thread over long time periods until revelations would emerge. I do not have 12 questions but I do have 6 that I find interesting and hope we as a civilization answer in my lifetime.
1. Education at Scale #
So many problems in the world can be boiled down to issues around education. Our solution as a society seems to be the establishment of state-run (and privately run) schools that all look and act uniformly in their approach to solving this problem. Their yearly schedules are similar, kids are grouped by age, the subjects are pretty much the same, the extracurriculars are similar, the daily class breakdowns follow similar patterns, the yearly progression is similar, and the end goal is the same: college. In America the school system happens primarily at the local level with influence from the states and the federal government so it’s common to see variation in syllabi, resources, wealth, etc. across different schools but the directional approach to the overall problem of educating the people remains the same. Even privately-run schools look almost identical to public schools in all but their prestige and wealth.
It can be difficult to measure the efficacy of different school reforms but we know that what we have right now is not working. The average US adult reads at a 7th grade level and American students routinely score worse than international counterparts on standardized tests. Our educational elite seem committed to the idea that the problem is funding and more schooling = more education but we routinely see this is not the case. Most education policy makers view education as a function of locking students in a room for 8 hours a day and fiddling with the right knobs to make them come out the other side smarter but this is not how learning works. You can force a child to sit in a chair and you can even force them to read a book, reciting the words out loud to be absolutely certain, but that simply does not mean they are learning the lesson we want future citizens to be learning.
Our kids are isolated from the world from ages 6 to 18 every weekday for 10 months out of the year, forced to sit in sterile environments, often learning the same subject — like a foreign language — for years and still graduate with no proficiency in it. Worse yet the basics of reading and writing have proficiency rates that are abysmally low and after 12 years of schooling the average American is unqualified for the work force, has very little formal reasoning and logic skills, and has not interacted with the world in a meaningful manner at all. Any school reform that shows a sign of promise quickly sees their benefits disappear when rolled out at scale (I cannot find a source for this now but this is famously a phenomenon that the Gates Foundation has struggled to overcome). Why is that?
So much can be written about the education problem and potential fixes but I’ll leave it here for now. Education is still plagued by Bloom’s 2-sigma problem, our schooling institutions seem to be sliding in the wrong direction even in our richest cities, and worst of all despite all our resources and advancements in technology we have not seen a boom in educational outcomes. Why aren’t we producing more world-changing geniuses than ever before? What does it take to solve the education problem for a society at our scale? If we are to solve our society’s challenges in the next century we better figure this one out.
2. Software at Scale #
We have an ongoing software crisis. The short of it is most software projects fail. And as a project increases in size and importance the odds of it failing goes up. The CHAOS reports published by the Standish Group paint a bleak picture with software project success rates past and present. Despite methodologies like Agile and all the developer tooling and product management knowledge that’s been accumulated since the ’60s we’ve seen only marginal progress in consistently building software successfully. The important thing to note here is that we can build software at scale in the sense that we have the compute and knowledge to build large systems but we cannot build software at scale in the sense that many organizations can competently build software.
This is an increasingly important problem and has been since it was identified in the NATO Software Engineering Conference in 1968. Software is eating the world and it’s playing an increasingly important role in our lives. It’s critical for our banking, transportation, national security, healthcare, etc. We need to figure out how to competently build software for all aspects of our lives even when it’s being built by semi-competent organizations in the government. This is the problem I am most focused on right now given my career and understanding of the domain so if I can solve one of the big issues on this list it’s most likely to be this one. I do think there are promising solutions here and I think a lot of them exist already they just haven’t been synthesized into a single philosophy and framework for software development so that the average developer and product team can just follow some simple guidelines and arrive at good software. I am confident this can be solved in my lifetime.
3. The Immune System #
Autoimmune disorders are on the rise and it feels like every day I’m talking to someone with new allergies they didn’t have growing up. The immune system is so crucial to understanding and controlling human health and our medical system simply does not understand it nearly well enough. Most autoimmune disorders are misdiagnosed and most do not have great treatment options. We need a Manhattan Project for mapping out, understanding, and controlling the immune system. From what we know it seems to be somewhat programmable. Could we ever arrive at an understanding well enough that allows us to quite literally program/debug our personal immune systems like we do with code? This could be the biggest seismic shift in human health after sanitary water and antibiotics.
How does the immune system relate to other systems in our body like our gut biome and our skin? How does it relate to mental health and the brain? How does food, exercise, and sunlight affect it? Can it be harnessed to fight cancers, Alzheimer’s, and other classes of illnesses? Our immune system is dynamic and vital to understanding our health and wellbeing.
4. Community #
It feels like community is deteriorating across America. Kids spend less time playing with friends, adults spend less time with friends and family, and rates of depression & suicide are increasing. In our cities and towns people know their neighbors less and less and we are becoming more insular, spending more time alone as we age.
On top of that we are seeing weird trends around gender and vitality. Fertility rates are plummeting leaving us with aging populations and a dearth of young kids to inject life and hope into our communities. We are also seeing growing divides between the genders and there seems to be a massive disconnect between expectation and reality in dating for both the men and women I speak to in my life. At least in the coastal liberal cities it seems that taking an adversarial approach to dating is the predominant strategy and it doesn’t seem to be working well for us as a society.
All the technology in the world won’t save us if we hate each other because of our politics, gender, or lifestyle. We need to figure out how to bring back a sense of community to our country as we grow while protecting the liberties of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles that a free nation should expect. This is not a problem that digital technology can solve. It will require social technology and smart leaders.
5. Food at Scale #
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US. Obesity rates and the amount we spend on healthcare are skyrocketing and it’s undeniably related to the food we eat. This even relates to so many of the autoimmune problems and the rise of allergies we are seeing. It sure seems like our food is poisoning us but the extent is unclear. The interesting thing to me is what incentives are leading us down this path. Is it just as simple as garbage food tasting good and hijacking our brain’s reward mechanisms to become addicting? Is this demand-induced? Why is it with all our wealth and all our fertile farmland we cannot seem to grow really healthy food at scale for cheap?
This problem can be broken down into a couple categories but the two big ones are: what even is a healthy diet and what would it take to feed the entire nation such a diet? How could we build farms that can grow the right food in the necessary quantities for cheap while being environmentally sustainable? Avoiding soil erosion, excess fertilizers, animal cruelty, resource consumption, and all the other problems our farming industry is currently plagued with is important on its own but to do that and to feed everyone the right food for cheap seems incredibly important. It can be tempting to view this purely as an engineering problem but it’s far more than that. Understanding what a healthy diet looks like for different groups of people with different ancestry and diet restrictions is an unsettled science. On top of that even arriving at an answer does not take into account the immense political and economic efforts that would be involved to reform our farming industry to grow the foods it actually should. The very health and vitality of our nation could rest on figuring this out.
6. The Nature of Consciousness #
What is consciousness? Why does it seem like some matter has this property while other forms of matter do not? Where does it come from? Does it rely on organic matter or can silicon be conscious? This is a fascinating question that gets to the heart of what it means to be human and it could become increasingly important as AI becomes more and more powerful. It may seem academic — and it’s certainly easy to smoke a joint and sit in an armchair talking about the nature of consciousness mannnnnn — but in reality understanding human consciousness could unlock an understanding of the universe, human behavior, psychology, and mental health. The nature of consciousness (along with the origin of life) are the two big unsettled questions in biological science in my opinion.
These are just some of the questions I find interesting but I’m also young and I expect I’ll find quite a few more as my life goes on. Some of these are big and I have no expectation of finding an answer to them myself although I do hope we figure them out as a civilization within my lifetime.