On the most critical problems of the 21st Century

I was asked recently what I believe the world will be like in 40 years. I defaulted to naming a set of important problems and then mentioning how we tend to overestimate the ability to predict new technology. This question inspired me to document my ideas for comparison down the road. Thus, here is my view on the world’s biggest challenges over the next century.

One of the obvious explosions of the early 21st century revolves around computing. First, from a hardware perspective, the design of smaller transistors has exponentially enhanced the amount of available compute. (2^year for Moore's Law nerds). Although the development of transistors is slowing, it has opened floodgates for a virtually limitless set of applications. These range from classical problems such as infrastructure, medicine, and food production to newer technologies such as robotics and genetic engineering. Additionally, the computing age has created a new set of problems in security as information is constantly being traded. With this wide array of applications, computing is likely to be the foundation behind the majority of solved problems in the 21st century. So let’s assume that computational enhancement will have a large impact on all the ideas discussed in the rest of this post.

With tremendous excitement, I am hopeful that humans can expand to become a multi-planetary species. Our investment in the resurgence of the space program over the last decade is very encouraging. However, designing rockets for large-length space travel is certainly a challenge. Furthermore, one cannot underestimate the colonization of a rocky wasteland. If we do succeed at colonizing Mars, I believe this will be one of the major turning points of this century as it will open doors for new land and resources for society to harvest.

The energy problem is a challenging conflict that balances the number of finite resources on our planet with the development of society's technology. I want to emphasize that the energy problem I am referring to does not just consist of oil but also important metals like Lithium needed for batteries and chips. We must still produce these materials in order to sustain our current lifestyles, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so. Additionally, the production of this energy is modifying the dynamics of our ecosystem leading to rising sea levels and increased temperatures. Thus, society must find a solution. I believe that a reasonable solution to this problem beyond more efficient refinement is through the interplanetary exploration mentioned above. However, there are at least three serious concerns with this solution.

  • Do other planets have satisfactory resources for use?
  • Do we have enough resources to expand to harvest other planets' resources?
  • If we have enough resources, do we use them efficiently enough?
  • It is unclear if the answers to these questions are yes, but this problem is a major issue to be explored in the upcoming century.

    A practical problem that almost everyone in modern society can relate to is traffic congestion. Increasingly, we have larger bottlenecks dominating cities as society expands its use of cars. Naturally, cities have responded by developing highways with more lanes as well as incentivizing alternative routes of transportation such as buses and subways. There is reasonable evidence that these solutions have eased the expansion of traffic congestion, but ultimately, I believe that the development of autonomous vehicles will eradicate this problem. Without overestimating, if society ever became fully autonomous, we could utilize the development of CAVs (Connected and Automated Vehicles) which allows for communication of these vehicles to avoid stopping and even red lights. This would also greatly benefit the energy problem as stopping and starting utilizes the most gas. Overall, this is not the most pressing issue of society, but I choose to include it with the perspective that we waste a large amount of human effort on daily traveling. Imagine societal production if this was greatly reduced.

    Another major issue facing modern society is the diffusion of information. There are two components to this. The first is regarding the consumption of information. It is difficult to verify information as factual through news, Twitter, Reddit, and other outlets. Furthermore, a small percentage of people are altering the framing and headline of news for their benefit. The second revolves around the production of information. Currently, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. are collecting data on your daily habits to potentially sell or utilize themselves. These apps appear free to the average person but are underlined by the countless data collected for building profitable businesses. Obviously, it is much more challenging to make progress without things like Amazon’s delivery empire and Google Maps, but this leads to a lack of privacy. (It is assumed to maintain these apps as free, data collection is required) Furthermore, it opens the door for dangerous manipulation that can cause tremendous harm to the average citizen. Therefore, this is quite a tricky challenge of tradeoffs that society must address over the next 100 years.

    In the U.S., the nation is becoming more politically polarized. Both political parties utilize rhetoric that incites emotional outbursts leading to instability in many environments. For example, 4 of the 5 largest protests in U.S. history occurred in the last 5 years. Moreover, these were nationwide as opposed to previous protests being contained in the nation's capital. A majority of this widespread polarization is attributed to the average American’s newfound access to large-scale information. (See work by Yphtach Lelkes). From an optimistic perspective, I believe the resolution to this polarization is rooted in education regarding how data is gathered and presented. As the average American becomes familiarized with data analytics in the computing age, hopefully, they will begin to move away from emotional-based interviews. Therefore, networks will need to respond to lower ratings by providing clear and more transparent data. However, this is a very hopeful viewpoint as a society will need to overcome confirmation bias - a long-rooted psychological downfall of human nature. From a pessimistic view, the nation may become increasingly polarized to a point of nationalistic collapse leading to civil war. Obviously, this is an extreme perspective, but as the classical cliche goes, “history tends to repeat itself”.

    This problem may be the most difficult to explain, but also the most important. Humans are becoming relatively smart. To explain this idea, consider the sport of boxing. In boxing, it is not how hard you can punch, but how hard you can punch compared to others your size. Humans are starting to build knowledge banks very large with respect to the capacity of their brains. This does not mean that humans have a vast understanding of the universe, but it does mean contributing to human knowledge is increasingly difficult. Additionally, with the development of automation, experts are able to produce much more value to society than the average person. Therefore, fewer people are needed to sustain and improve the quality of life in society. From an economic standpoint, this is reflected in the number of increasing billionaires who are experts that created a large amount of value for society. The question then becomes, “what does the average citizen do for a living to generate income if they are not needed?”. Naturally, an obvious solution would be a supplemental government-based income. But this is very challenging because ideally, a well-constructed society forces its individuals to contribute to that society in return for some benefit. Otherwise, no individuals would ever need to contribute creating stagnation. Thus, I do not have a proposed solution to this conflict, but hopefully, someone does.

    These are the problems that I think will dominate the next century. I would like to note that a concurrent theme is surrounding large scale trade offs just like our everyday lives. Maybe we aren't so far away from these large scale issues.