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19 Challenges for Human Civilization

11 January 2019

Inspired by Seth Godin’s writeup of Hilbert’s problems and Y Combinator’s Request for Startups (RFS) list , I want to help focus my own work by listing the major challenges that I believe humanity will face in the coming decades. My personal goal is to work on some of these challenges, either as an entrepreneur, investor, or in some other form.

Part of me struggles with this list, because there are many other problems to overcome, technologies to invent, and ideas to bring to fruition. I also realize that some are well-defined and others are vague, but I will accept this shortcoming for now; part of the challenge is defining what exactly needs to be done, and some challenges are simply too complex to put in a pithy writeup.

Finally, I’ve also tried to list these in some form of chronological order, with challenges we need to address in the short-term (i.e., 5-10 years) near the top, versus longer-term and more fuzzy challenges further down.

With that in mind, here are the challenges that are top-of-mind for me:

  1. Reducing social inequality and increasing social mobility. Society needs to support its individual members and give them the freedom and ability to live well. Without this, we have less innovation, an increased threat of populism, and generally don’t allow members of our community to live up to their potential. We’ll only solve the rest of the problems below by enabling people to work on them1.
  2. Understanding and managing climate change. We know climate change is happening but managing this effectively is a major challenge for humanity right now. Understanding what is driving the change and rallying to prevent or manage it is critical.
  3. Reinvigorating Western liberalism and globalism. I say “reinvigorating” here because I believe that our culture and society is having an internal struggle when it comes to our core values. I believe much of this is driven by social inequality (see #1 above), but having a reinvigorated values system, and institutions that strongly abide by these values, will lend governments and our society a stability we need to work on the long-term problems below2.
  4. Long-term government, corporate, and consumer debt. We are currently running a long-term experiment that began in the late 19th century and has continued to this day. It’s an experiment where consumers, corporations, and governments are comfortable with debt and accruing more of it. Debt payments risk becoming unsustainable in the coming decades, and we need to plan for this or understand how to work around it.
  5. Creating effective personalized education. It baffles me that we spend magnitudes more resources and research into personalizing advertisements and product recommendations than we do on education. Education is the low hanging fruit of opportunities for personalization as we all spend 10-20 years in school, are measured regularly, and yet we don’t do much to optimize the experience or personalize it to each student’s unique needs.
  6. Better search engines; ones that can find high-quality information. This is especially true in the era of “fake news” and SEO spam. When was the last time you trusted results you found on Google when searching for nutrition information or travel advice? There is more spam, fake information, and poor content out there than ever before, and getting through it all risks making existing search engines useless or obsolete.
  7. Building a new cybersecurity framework, including personal data and privacy protection. I’m very proud of Europe’s focus on the GDPR framework, but much more needs to be done to ensure we protect consumer data and ensure that information about individuals is not abused. This is particularly true with the rise of IOT, edge computing, and other technologies.
  8. Solving “identity” (in the context of cybersecurity above). One particular area that needs to be dealt with is how we identify individuals, authenticate users and accounts, and provide services for people while still respecting their right to privacy3.
  9. Getting efficient at forecasting human/societal events. We’re not very good at forecasting or understanding the macro-level trends of our civilization. By getting better at this – particularly if we can design systems that use data about the world to make forecasts – I believe we’ll be driving AI technology forward and also helping optimize the way the world is run4.
  10. Self-flying consumer UAVs (for personal autonomous transportation). Forget self-driving cars… Why not move into three dimensions and fly people between places, automate cargo delivery via drones, and so on? If we push drone technology and AI forward in this way, we will be able to use three dimensions for transportation, instead of two. Feels more efficient.

Now come the really long-term challenges…

  1. Sustainable, vertical, and self-supported farming. Agriculture today is inefficient and coming up with better approaches to farming is critical to long-term climate change management, feeding astronauts, and colonizing other planets.
  2. Learning how to actually make people healthier via (personalized) nutrition. Nutrition is a tough problem – measuring inputs, understanding how our bodies process them, and also managing the unique personal qualities of people is something we have not solved.
  3. Hacking biology and turning it into software. One day, we’ll be modifying genetic codes the way we write software today. I believe this biopunk future is inevitable, and enabling it responsibly is the key, rather than worrying about it or avoiding it altogether5.
  4. Life extension and anti-ageing. This is fairly self-explanatory.
  5. Sustainable nuclear fusion as a form of energy production. This will be the most efficient and largest-scale form of energy production we can develop in the coming century, and it will be revolutionary.
  6. Building effective Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI) to augment human cognitive capabilities. Similar to the biopunk future in #13, it’s a question of when and how when it comes to BCI. This will happen; what it looks like and how it works is up to us. Ensuring we have BCI is another form of human evolution and will also ensure continued progression of human civilization6.
  7. An economic model for space that encourages expansion beyond Earth. Whether it’s unstoppable climate change, colonization, war, asteroid mining, or something else, we need an economic model for space – one that looks beyond the Earth in terms of long-term living. The entire space industry today is built around pure research or providing services back on Earth. We need to come up with an economic model where staying in space permanently, and moving outward beyond Earth, is viable and worthwhile.
  8. Non-chemical propulsion methods for space travel. A big part of the above is our suffering through the rocket equation… We need to come up with new forms of propulsion that enable more efficient forms of long distance space travel.
  9. Human hibernation for long-term space travel. Let’s say we want to colonize the galaxy… Long-term human hibernation will be important because keeping people awake and feeding them is extremely inefficient.

Did I miss anything that you think is critical for the future of humanity? I’d love to hear about it… I’m also keen to hear about any solutions or projects in the space, so please reach out if you have any thoughts!


Notes:

  1. One idea that didn’t make the cut here focuses on quantitatively defining what a “good” and “improving” community is, based on health, financial, and other metrics. I didn’t include this because I strongly believe that social mobility solves many of these problems, but this is nevertheless an interesting question.
  2. A fantastic book on the topic is The Retreat of Western Liberalism. A more theoretical exploration here, particularly in the context of government institutions, is The Evolution of Civilizations.
  3. The Economist has a fantastic discussion on why this is important in their 18 December 2018 magazine.
  4. I’ve written about this in more detail.
  5. A fictional account of such a future is presented in Autonomous.
  6. Homo Deus discusses this in great detail.