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Ask HN: What's an important problem that more people should work on?
62 points by softwareqrafter on Sept 29, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 110 comments
I'm not interested in building an other B2B Invoicing SaaS app. Instead I'm trying to look for pressing problems, where I as an engineer could potentially contribute to. What do you feel is an important problem that, when solved (or at least worked on) could make a big difference in the world.

One strategy that I adopt is to think of industries that are highly manual labor and dream of ways to fix that. I forget the name of the company, but there's a startup in the Bay Area that builds drones for farmers. Right now, farmers wake up early in the morning and drive through small sections of their fields and spot check things to decide what needs water or fertilizer or what-have-you. They have to spot check, because some of these farms are so large that it would take a prohibitively long time to check everything. As a result, a small patch of plants that might need more water might get some water, but the nearby plants that are already well-watered might get too much water. With these drones, the farmer can wake up, hit a button on their computer, go make coffee, and by the time their coffee is ready, the drones have uploaded photos of every square foot of the farm onto their computer. Software can analyze it to see what needs watering and fertilizing, what's ready for picking or for planting, etc.

That's the kind of thing that gets me excited about the future of technology. How could we automate or ease the jobs of farmers? How can we automate going to the DMV? How can we streamline flu shots? Can we write software that can organize resistance to Ebola outbreaks or malaria? Is there some software that can get the people of Flint access to clean water -- or can we write software that will prevent a Flint-like crisis from happening again? Can we identify bots that might be trying to affect our political processes? What about making sure kids in schools are well fed, since we know that hungry kids perform worse in schools? Can we solve that somehow?

I don't have answers to any of those questions. They are what I call "Epic Problems," and I think about them all the time. Unfortunately, the solutions are several orders of magnitude more involved than a standard CRUD app.

One thing to do is pick an Epic Problem, then work in an Agile mindset to tackle it. That's what Planet Labs did when it came to satellites. They have hundreds of shoebox-sized satellites in space, putting them up there at a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of what it takes to put a traditional satellite in orbit.

What else could you do that with?

Expanding on that from the opposite direction, what new industries can be created that can employee the previous workers disrupted by new technology? He who figures that out will never be for want.

(This isn't an argument against the parent comment at all, as I agree with them too. Their comment just got me thinking.)

Excellent point.

I sort of got into this discussion a few minutes ago with a friend of mine, but I think part of solving Epic Problems is revisiting the notion that one must work in order to survive, and particularly revisit the 40 hour work-week idea. If we can automate a farmer's job so that he spends 4 hours a day instead of 8 hours a day, does that change the value he provides to society? Of course not. His earnings shouldn't be dependent on hours worked, but rather productivity to society. If that farmer can employ 5 farmhands instead of 10, do the five that lost their jobs really need new jobs? Can we recognize that the economy doesn't need them anymore? Or can we cut the hours so that each farmhand works half-time?

Mind you, we're getting into UBI territory which is outside the scope of this thread, but... How many jobs can you think of that were created in order to maintain or grow a budget? How many middle managers aren't really necessary? Do we really need cashiers at Walmart or Target or the grocery store?

As automation accelerates, we're going to find ourselves more and more in a position of struggling to find new jobs for displaced workers... and I think we should challenge that premise from the start.

DroneDeploy does that: https://www.dronedeploy.com/

One of the best hiring prcoesses I've experienced (didn't end up working there, though)

Can you describe why that hiring process was so good? What did they do that set it apart from most?


- It was transparent - They asked me very good, enjoyable, questions that relate to the actual job - It was very reasonably timed

Agtech is big all over the place, for instance this Dutch company:


Also in the ag field "technology transfer" is a real thing (not just a euphemism for patent trolling.) Schools like Cornell and UNH are always looking for varieties of crops that can be grown a little further north and for ways to put money in the pockets of farmers large and small.

Make a website that brings transparency to your local political candidates and votes. In many places it's very difficult to find any real information on what we're voting on and the props themselves are ambiguous or confusing. And the candidates themselves also often have no online presence and no real scrutiny as to whether they're full of shit.

Homelessness induced by mental health challenges. I know this isn't exactly what you were asking, but this is an area in which creating engineering solutions can go a long way. As suggested - think geographically local. Improvements in the way our society handles these issues, proven to work on a local scale, can be adapted and replicated globally.

I'd go further and slightly more abstract by focusing on countering loneliness and/or on fostering community. I strongly suspect that technological and societal developments have increased loneliness in a worrying degree. At least based on my research and personal experience homelessness is very often a 'symptom' of loneliness, or lack of a tribe/community. I also believe that mental health or lack thereof is, sadly, often a symptom of waning communal life. Even more specifically, high-functioning autism might well be, in part, a symptom of a less 'cohesive' society.

Theory aside, I think our work as programmers has significantly changed the way society communicates and interacts. For better and worse. Would it not make sense that we continue this work, but more towards solving the issues we perceive, whether self-created or not?

I propose programmers spend more time talking to friends about challenges in their life that might be 'programmed' away, and less time on ads, tracking, manager checklist #321, or anything fundamentally centered around Business, because, let's be fair, on the whole, at least in 'the west', we as programmers have it incredibly good, so we can afford to be ideological.

That's solved in every industrialized country besides America. It's an issue of political will. I think it's a great thing to work on, and desperately needed in the US, but it's not a question of how to implement it but rather the political change to implement it.

Edit: it's not even, strictly speaking, nation-wide. Idaho for example, does a great job on this. California had most of its mental health facilities shut down during the 1960's when Reagan was Governor to save costs.

>>That's solved in every industrialized country besides America.

Whoa. That's an interesting unsubstantiated statistic. A quick (albeit unnecessary) Google search begs to differ: https://homelessworldcup.org/homelessness-statistics/

It's really not. First, I said industrialized. I know that homelessness is high in some poorer countries. I'm talking about the wealthy countries such as most EU countries.

Switzerland, for example, doesn't remotely have this problem.

I know from being involved with a Washington state based NGO That there are entire unincorporated Spanish speaking villages in Washington. Even in places like Germany and Japan, you have itinerants. I highly doubt any country has a zero homeless population. That said, there is a big difference between such people who are largely self sufficient and stay out of the public eye, and those that don't. The latter are identified by society as a problem.

It's really not an issue of visibility.

European countries tend to spend less of their money on military and more on social programs so that it's both harder to become homeless in the first place and, if it happens, there are programs to help you.

They do. But I would like to see homeless populations as a percentage of the whole population before making a judgement. I would still expect the US to have a larger percentage but not that much higher. I was in Denmark/Germany/Netherlands/France/Greece this year and saw a good amount of homeless -- though they've been dealing with a migrant crisis unlike the U.S. has experienced.

Many commenters here are extrapolating on their experiences in SF/Oakland/LA/Seattle/Portland and thinking the rest of the US has a commensurate homeless population. Spoiler: they don't.

though they've been dealing with a migrant crisis unlike the U.S. has experienced.

There are many parallels between the current migration crisis and the Irish potato famine, though I'm not sure how they compare in scale.


I can only assume you haven't spent a lot of time in the EU... Switzerland (which is not in the EU) is the only European country I've been to that does not have a very visible population of homeless people.

20 years in Europe. I've never never never never tripped over crazy homeless. It's all I do in Berkeley and SF.

It's not a small, nuanced difference but literally night and day. Have you really seen tents downtown in any city in Europe?

I'm American but most Europeans I know struggle with living in the Bay Area because it's such a shock for them.

The parent of my comment was claiming that it is a solved problem everywhere outside of the US. My claim is simply that it is far from solved, and if someone thinks homelessness is "solved" in the EU, I can only assume they haven't been there.

You're saying it's worse in SF/Berkeley, and no doubt it is. But it's not "solved" in the EU.

That was me. I said, "Homelessness induced by mental health challenges" was solved in every other OECD country -- and it's true. In those countries there are programs to make sure people with significant mental health issues, especially those which would lead to homelessness, are placed in special care.

I've spent 20 years living in various countries in Europe. I stand by my statement.

SF is also an extreme example of homeless problems because of various factors (weather, systems which attract homeless, etc).

There's a homeless problem in other cities, but we don't have tents downtown.

I was in LA recently and there was an entire tent city in the heart of downtown Orange County.

The link below lists around 30 US cities with tent cities downtown.

Canada has also had this problem.


I have in Japan, I have seen drunks at 10am arguing and throwing shit at each other. It's not a US only problem.

Edit: autocorrect -.-

I can only assume you haven't spent a lot of time in at least one of the following:

- The EU

- San Francisco or Oakland

Australia has the same issue. Unless you can argue Australia isn't a 1st world country.

Did you read the full comment? Australia, I'm guessing, is more similar to Idaho than California.

Homeless is increasing fast in Australia, largely a consequence of property speculation. It's also increasing in every European country except Finland (https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2016/sep/14/less...).

I commented before the edit, but even after the edit I don't agree. (As someone who volunteered assisting mentialy handicapped homeless for 3 years).

Switzerland is also not in the EU and is completely different from all the other countries. It's the only place in Europe where engineers can earn Bay Area salaries.

You are a recruiter, and that's a recruitment link.

How? Is there a simple solution that would work in the U.S. as well? Most people I've heard that are reasonably informed about it here invariably end up with, "It's complicated, because it's a combination of issues spanning mental health, law enforcement, drug policy, etc..."

Plus suicide, disability, etc.

I am going to focus on US centric problems. Here are the two areas I think Americans could use the biggest help:

1) Personal finance - Americans across the board lack basic financial competency. This effects the US across the board, people take on too much credit card debt, school debt, etc. This problem is across all classes (lower, middle, upper) - Americans do not understand basic things on how to budget, how much debt they can take on, how credit cards should work, how to invest, etc. We need financial education happening at the high school level so that the next generation of Americans don't make the same financial mistakes we have (taking on too much school debt, using credit card as loans, not taking advantage of employer 401k, buying houses you can afford, etc)

2) Diet / Eating - If you look at the list of the most common sources of death for Americans, almost every issue is linked to lifestyle (diet, smoking, alcohol, etc.). Our diets have spun out of control; Americans lack basic knowledge on what is healthy or not. I've had many friends who struggle with weight issues who lack even basic knowledge of how calories work, what their daily needs, what are necessary nutrients, etc.)

Wouldn't that come under education though?(Australians have the same problem).

I didn't realise how bad it was in Aus until I moved to Japan.

Edit: I was referring to your first point, sorry.

Ideally, I agree it should be taught in school. But frankly, our education system is so screwed on even teaching basics, I don't think it could handle something as critical as this.

What about something that would get both parents and their kids involved? This is a multigenerational problem and it might help to get everyone involved on both points.

Batteries. Batteries are the number one technical problem right now. A battery with energy density approaching crude oil would revolutionize the world beyond even what the Internet did. We really don't have an energy generation problem, we have an energy storage problem.

"Batteries" is a pretty good answer, but I'd argue that getting cost down is more important at this point than raising energy density. Tesla proves that you can make long-range vehicles with today's battery energy density. The batteries are just too expensive at present to deliver an under-$20k-USD vehicle that can sustain 5 hours of freeway driving between charges.

For grid scale storage, which would be needed to get to really high penetration levels of renewable electricity, energy density is even less important. A paltry 50 watt-hours/kg would be perfectly fine if the battery also offers low capacity fade per deep discharge cycle and low costs.

A battery with really high energy density, but per-kWh costs higher (or at least no lower) than today's batteries, would be revolutionary for aircraft and an extremely welcome improvement for mobile electronic devices. But I don't think that it would have the same breathtaking macro-impacts on world energy systems as making much cheaper batteries could.

> For grid scale storage, which would be needed to get to really high penetration levels of renewable electricity, energy density is even less important. A paltry 50 watt-hours/kg would be perfectly fine if the battery also offers low capacity fade per deep discharge cycle and low costs.

For grid scale storage there's also options like pumped hydro storage. Cost / kwh can be much lower than batteries, depending on site and scale. Might need to start with a budget of $50m-500m though.

I see two things:

1) making data and facts more available and easier usable for everyone. This includes good sources, polished data streams and - the most neglected thing I suppose - good UI for non-techs.

2) Decentralize applications, plug in interoperability. OStatus is a good example of this. We need to reduce datasilo hoarding monopolies. This also partly plays into 1)

Was going to post about more decentralized fundamentals on the Internet; identity, file storage, basic data, etc. But I'll piggyback and upvote this.

"I'm not interested in building an other B2B Invoicing SaaS app"

I think I made the very 1st one of those and I'm working on an upgrade now. lol.

A few areas come to mind that are obvious, like food, shelter, income, energy.

There's a lot of work being done on growing food for personal and community use with controlled systems but there looks (to me) like there's plenty of room for improvement and innovation there still.

From what I've read recently inexpensive, durable, and accurate soil moisture sensors are needed. It looks like a "Pick one feature" situation there right now. I've been pondering that a bit lately.

I've seen some interesting innovation in how weeds are managed in large scale agriculture that include using organic "grit" to "sandblast" weeds with remote controlled mechanically articulated nozzles using image recognition software to direct the blast. This eliminates the need for herbicides so it attempts to solve a very pressing issue.

I recently saw a robotic "weed whacker" on a social funding site that got a lot of attention, but the prototype they showed didn't inspire confidence in me that it'd do much.

Pest control is another obvious pressing problem in agriculture, as is efficient use of water.

I'm currently designing a simple experiment to grow salad veggies outdoors in the winter using low hoop row covers and passive solar heating.

Growing food closer to where it's consumed has the potential to greatly reduce costs, environmental impact, and hunger, and it looks to me like there's a lot of headroom there for improvement.

I couldn't agree more re. growing food for personal and community use. I'm currently in the very early stages of designing an app for small farmers and CSAs. Hard to get many farmers to respond to giving me input and share their knowledge. I see a tremendous scope for improvement in the entire user and customer experience of finding and signing up for a CSA (from the end customer side) and then effectively managing and nurturing your customers and reducing churn (from the small farmer's side).

Not sure how you're soliciting feedback but you'd probably have pretty good luck volunteering for them and observing/conversing while getting first hand experience. Plus you'd make some friends (beta users).

yep- much harder to find the time to go volunteer but you're right on that. I don't consider myself a good salesman but I need to sell the idea that doing this would improve their bottom line.

A big difference how? You could work for the NSA and make it easier for the government to know people's thoughts, that would sure make a big difference in the world.

Or you could build an information sharing and vetting platform which could use proofs from multiple independent sources to certify data as true by tying it to factual evidence, a kind of scientific reddit to combat disinformation. You could use it as a backend to Wikipedia to vet and prove information, or disprove. Extend it using multiple dependent proofs to support another and you might be able to provide a platform on which to fight for political issues based on reams of certified data.

Also, jobs. It's hard to give some people jobs. People need jobs, and they need to make money, in order to fuel an economy and sustain a society. As an example, in a country with some 6 million felons, it's hard for them to get jobs, so they become a strain on the economy (among other things). Make a thing that helps people who have a hard time getting a job to get a job.

I suppose you're referring to wikitribune?

When a scientist wants to make progress in some field, the scientist first educates herself on the state of the art, and then does novel research that pushes the frontier.

When you have a discussion on facebook/reddit/HN about your favorite political issue, you just post your gut feeling and what you heard on TV instead of educating yourself on the issue, learning what the foremost experts are currently debating and what arguments are already refuted.

Super shitty example fix: Facebook Clippy "It sounds like you're having a discussion about abortion - are you aware that the smartest people on this topic are not actually discussing X, but rather have moved on to Y?"

Side problem:

When we DO make some bump of progress, only a few people benefit (the people reading the thread, at best), and everyone else does not. A million parallel discussions rehash the issue until after a decade, "culture" incrementally improves. How can my facebook discussion, in which I made a good point, prevent that same discussion from ever happening again?

I love where you're going. I would eagerly join a team working on this problem. If approached in a critical fashion, I do belive there could be a cohesive approach. There are numerous seemingly impassible problems and barriers, but this kind of thing is rarely done from a truly critical angle.

My thoughts here may lack some formbut one of the paradoxical issues I see are that a brand must be developed, but by way of a keen awareness of the problems of branding. The brand would have to be defended without alienation before market domination. But also, there is not a market for a convention such as knowledge to be automated. The competition is brands which automate opinion validation instead. I think your idea is already stepping ahead of this by automating away the process of deciding on sources.

The result would need to be something like automated research as it is done in a library.

Well education is how you solve this but we chronically underfund it and every kid is a blank new mind so progress is lost when we don’t teach.

In the West we have two general views on the nature of humans; intrinsically good or fundamentally bad. The rest of modern politics is shaped from this.

The internet and Facebook helps to find a diversity of thought but also in general does not promote critical thinking skills (which you’re suppose to learn in high school)...

since as we’ve seen facebook just degenerates into an echo chamber where blatant propaganda is unquestioned and in fact promoted. Critics are fake news and we refuse to critically debate. You see this in Congress where they blatantly lie about tax cuts, health care etc...

Education doesn't fully solve it. Education remedies the deficiencies.

To use PG's method: in 200 years, do you think that we will have 100M parallel, entry level discussions about the merits of abortion (or the political issue du jour)? No, obviously our discussion experience will be augmented such that we are easily led to the forefront of the debate and build on top of the pertinent points and progress being made. How do we invent that future?

I don’t think it will happen that way. The courts already ruled in roe vs wade and yet people still go back to first principles to argue.

People can disagree with Roe v Wade. There's still a foundation, that I think you're not noticing - we as a culture have made progress on it, the arguments are not the same as they would have been 100 years ago. More dramatically, the arguments about slavery are not the same, we are past it.

There’s a legal foundation but it’s still an active political argument as is teen birth control. We have made progress but I wouldn’t say anything is guaranteed.

This is a great idea, as it is a 'meta' idea, in that it is about making the new ideas faster and better. However, I think that what is proposed is a moderation issue. GAIs seem to be a bit of a ways off still, so humans are still the ones that need to write these messages and determine what would be prompted to be shown. As such, I think that a (gasp) market economy may be a good way to get people to do this. Maybe you can get an 'expert' to be paid to write these messages and as payment, they get some percentage of "ModCoins" that are mined in the background. I know that's not very much, right now, but who knows.

In the software space, I think that the world could use high-integrity reader/renderer libraries for common file formats. It's embarrassing that e.g. TIFF and font file readers/renderers have enabled arbitrary code execution, years after the formats were standardized, for inputs that aren't supposed to contain any interactive functionality.

Of course it's pretty obvious why nobody has done this before: almost nobody wants to pay for high integrity software unless compelled by law.

And there's obvious problem number two: even if you find a philanthropist to pay you to write this software and give it away under the most liberal license, it'll take effort to switch away from existing libraries. You might be able to imitate the structure of e.g. LibTIFF but everyone who was handling TIFF with another library will find it hard to switch.

The one that you understand and have skills, knowledge, abilities, or relationships that you can apply.

I know that's kind of cliche but there are opportunities and/or places to help all over the place. It's a matter of finding the ones that you can a) get passionate about and b) be successful at. And this applies to startups, non-profits, or even that internal project.

Personally, I work to support Austin Disaster Relief Network - https://adrn.org/ - which is a group of ~150 churches in Central Texas that come together to help people during flood, fire, hurricane, and anything else. We are background checked and badged to cross the emergency tape and help the Red Cross, local PD, or whoever else is on the scene. The focus first is helping people immediately.. while their house is still on fire. And then help them get back on their feet.

While I have first aid training, my specific role is helping on the technology side. When something happens - like Hurricane Harvey - we can stand up a 25 person call center in under an hour. It's powered by Cisco phones plugged into a local Asterisk/FreePBX server connected to Twilio. (I'm a former Twilio employee but they're not involved.) In the field, ADRN uses simple web and mobile apps to collect victim info and issue gift cards. It's tied into geolocation services and person databases to reduce fraud. There are online/offline modes for when you're in the field where there is no connectivity. There are a ton of technical roles required!

And the underlying aspect of all of this is that we design, build, and deploy technology with the HOPE that it never gets used. If it's used, that means something horrible happened.

And btw, Harvey isn't over for people in the field. All help is appreciated - https://adrn.org/disaster-relief/hurricaneharvey/

Economics. A problem that has come with increased inequality is that the allocation of capital has gotten further and further disconnected from people (the human capital) who have a more direct link to knowing or exploring ways of developing fundamental value generation. I suspect we are seeing this in metrics like decreasing productivity, decreasing new business generation - it seems like financial capital isn't mixing with human capital nearly as efficiently as we might hope. Is there a way to relink the two through an new or modified economic channel that dramatically facilitates this; and maybe even helps rebalance inequality by making invested human capital more consistently yield hands off dividends like invested financial capital.

Put ownership of productive goods and services in the hands of those who are actually creating those goods/performing those services. This would empower each person to push the investment of capital to what matters most to them--namely, themselves. When the consensus is formed, a lot more money will be devoted to maximizing human capital and a lot less toward the overhead (massive paychecks for a few, crazy cycles of bureaucracy) that are the hallmarks of today's economic goings-on.

There are probably huge strides that can be taken in healthcare, food, energy, transportation and finances. The challenge is that most of these industries are heavily regulated so you go in optimistic then get inundated with endless waves of bureaucracy, and end up making a new version of Twitter.

I'm personally fascinated with the transpiration industry. Everything from city bikes, to self driving cars, to hyper loop[1], to super sonic transport[2], to intergalactic transport[3].

[1] http://hyperloop-one.com

[2] http://boomsupersonic.com

[3] http://www.spacex.com/mars

Definitely feels like SpaceX just ate Boom's lunch last night.

Tell me about it! I think it's going to come down to cost. If SpaceX is anywhere near $2,500 a flight, it's going to be a tough slog for Boom.

Boom can fly you to the launch pad. Still lots of short flights and less popular routes that SpaceX could never service.

If they can lobby appropriately to get supersonic over land transit approved.


If you haven't noticed, the world around us is falling apart. Personally, I consider this malady of discontent just a result of letting every idiot post their comments on the internet. But that doesn't change the fact that something needs to be done, and I think it's more of a problem of teaching people how the process works, not so much to change the outcomes. Generally, I see people reaching for conspiracy theories or accusations of corruption whenever they don't understand the complexity of a problem. I. e. "Why don't they just build nuclear power plants? It's CO_2 neutral, and Obama's solar power mafia is just trying to stop the neutron-emitting pebble-fusor that will be 10x cheaper! Scandalous!"

Unfortunately, I haven't found the silver bullet to do this. So, second best: somehow help today's quality publishers to survive, and hope they have better ideas. There are two tech/business ideas I would love to see:

a. "The world's worst ad-blocker"

Currently, all ad blockers are focused on blocking as much as possible. That, and speed, are basically the metrics they show you.

I think (hope) there's a sizeable fraction of people that wouldn't mind unobtrusive, non-spyware advertisement if it helps their favourite writers to make rent. What's needed is an ad blocker that constantly evaluates parameters including the page publisher's reputation, the ad network, the product/company being advertised, the file sizes, ad positioning, movement and/or sound, and privacy implications. Then allow. the user (some) leeway to influence it to their liking.

b. A netflix-like subscription

This is more of a business problem. I guess publishers are afraid of losing their current $200/yr subscribers to a service that only pays them $10/yr or so, because it divides those $200 among a number of publishers.

They may be right. But personally, I have just one subscription, and that's the really cheap New Yorker, which I bought just to not be a complete free rider. I have a few hundred $ for whoever wants it, and gets me the NYT/Economist/WSJ/FT/etc. as a package deal.

Agree, somehow, high quality journalism sources like the main broadsheets need to move away from the cathedral-website model to a pay-per-article model. Realistically, people aren't going to spend more than $20-$30 per month on journalism. And realistically, given the enormous variety of high quality (and often free) content available, people certainly aren't going to spend that $20-$30 on a subscription to one or two newspapers. Healthy society needs free journalism, journalists need to be paid, people nowadays ain't gonna buy subscriptions to entire websites when they can read, like, the internet.

The easiest you can do is probably to look locally.

I'm sure there are a lot of non-profit with horrible websites, architectures, communications, etc. which you can throw a few hours at and help a lot of people.

Make formal methods cheaper and easier to use.

That's the wrong way to frame that problem. Formal methods generally have a mindshare problem that underlies their cost problems. Make formal methods more accessible to the average programmer.

It's not clear to me that you're disagreeing. "Cheaper and easier to use" and "more accessible" could be the same thing.

In the end, it is. But maybe not on a micro level, which keeps environment designers from doing the right thing to get more mindshare.

Automatic translation/interoperability between programming languages. The fragmentation of software into dozens of major languages hurts software quality, limits language choices, limits adoption of new languages, limits availability of software on new/less popular platforms, increases cognitive load for developers and sysadmins...

(and JavaScript as the most popular transpiler target today is depressing)

From the variety of answers showing up in this thread, one wonders if there is some tool to help link qualified people with problems they can solve.

Work on LARGE scale, e.g. pick a project from pg's frighteningly ambitious startup ideas (http://www.paulgraham.com/ambitious.html). This was from 2012 so a bit dated now but the general thought applies. Disrupt a segment, but one where there aren't huge clear antagonists that can squish you immediately, e.g. healthcare.

Two examples that are important to me:

* Investigate the rising cost of higher education. Start with public data (for state universities), create a nice visualization on where the money is going. Extrapolate to private colleges. Then find ways to attack and change the status quo.

* Increase quality of education of poor kids (not just inner city, but that may be easier to start with). For example, can the shuttered grade schools in poor areas be repurposed into startup spaces, providing office to startup at very low cost, but they have to provide tutoring teaching for local students.

A better way to connect funding with research.

This applies to many fields, but in general the academic and R&D funding process feels broken. Researchers and scientists spend a disproportionate amount of time writing funding applications, rather than researching or doing science.

Create accessible tech that:

1. amplifies people's abilities to reasonably assess evidence on topics of significance, analogously to how literacy has amplified collective memory.

2. enables online collective environments that cultivate the capacity to use such amplified abilities in interaction between non-like-minded people, along with related attributes such as curiosity and humility.

You'd probably need to be some kind of genius to pull either of these off, though the type of genius required is probably not that of engineering.

It's what I'd do if I had the concrete ideas but, unfortunately lacking genius (of any type), I don't.

A service uses Russell Conjugation [1] to detect bias in news sources.

[1] https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27181

Anonymous employer review system for US teachers and education administrators.

Teachers throughout the US are not treated equally, but because everything about them is open and publicly available, there is no way for them to review their experiences and forewarn other interested candidates until it’s too late.

Glassdoor is “fine” except it’s not really oriented towards education, which is quite a world of its own.

I tried to work on this concept two years ago, but didn’t get very far. Authenticating teachers anonymously is difficult.

Feel free to email me for more info.

Healthcare. The issue with 'important problems' not only that they are much harder to solve, but also that lots of people will ignore your project.

Personal example: I started https://www.juvmed.com (it's not ready for Show HN yet). Shared on my facebook, got 4 likes, no comments. My selfies get 50 likes. Demotivating.

Btw, any feedback on that project is welcome. Thanks

Autonomous cars. Traffic is bad for the environment, safety, and psychological health of drivers. Let's reclaim years of our lives that are spent in traffic.

Litter drone. Design a solar powered robotic beach sweeper, to identity and collect the trillions of plastic chips that are covering the beaches. Extend the idea to a fleet seaworthy drones to remove floating micro debris and call in help for large floating debris.

Thanks for asking!

This is one of my dreams. Helping myself with the udacity nanodegrees

It sort of depends on what you bring to the party of course. But it is always a good question to consider and fun on a Friday afternoon.

Education would be a big one for me. Part of the issue with today's world is that we see the world differently through the lens of how we were educated. If we ever hope to have a planetary wide society we need to start with a common understanding of the world.

The lack of empathy that online communication encourages. Empathy defined as conscious attempts to think and feel what the person you're talking to thinks and feels. It's quite natural with in-person and even voice communication. An extension of this problem is the lack of empathy online bleeding into offline communication.

Improving existing software stability/security. Dive into the OpenBSD project and stay a while.

Yep. The totally unsexy answer.

in general abstract terms, important problems have solutions that:

- improve security and efficiency (which is also security :P )

e.g.: umbrellas prevent you from getting wet, the judicial system (intends..) to enable the public to trust one another, your skin is a firewall against pathogens, sleep cleanses the brain of metabolic byproducts, dreams (ostensibly) make it more likely that your awake mind will succeed more..

- address shortcomings of previous attempts, or otherwise explain that the problem was previously underrated (if it isn't a solution that just happens to have astonishing luck :P)

- punishes gamblers that speculate without paying the price and instead do it at the expense of nonparticipants

- even better if the solution to the problem enables mutually-beneficial interactions at the atomic level

- and 10x as better if it avoids growing into a benevolent dictatorship

Verifiably true facts on the ground. Like, verifiably true video footage. If we see reporting that something has happened, how do we know it actually happened? This is going to become a much bigger problem - today's "fake news" is just the tip of the iceberg.

Reinvent information access ("search") for the mobile world. The current paradigm google mini-me model, or even glorified chatbots like siri, are nowhere near where they should be. This necessitates a complete rethink of the search<>browse paradigm.

>The current paradigm google mini-me model, or even glorified chatbots like siri, are nowhere near where they should be

What's your vision on better information access?

The biggest problem we are currently facing, as a species, is self-destruction. The two problems are:

1. How do we stop destroying our climate and planet as quickly as possible?

2. How do we look for new planets to colonize?

It seems like Elon is trying to make impacts in both of these with Tesla and SpaceX.

I would be interesting in knowing a major pure programming problem, not one motivated by the outside world. Like the open problems of pure math.

Better tools for the "non-professional programmer"

Making good financial advice and planning accessible to everyone, especially those who need it most.

It's not clear what that means. Frequently the "financial planning" drumbeat seems oriented towards doing what is good for Wall Street.

You're right, I think it's broad and there are several subproblems. For some people it might mean: opening their first savings account, teaching them to grow a safety net, introducing retirement accounts and their benefits, helping people understand tools like HSAs, helping people understand and take advantage of credit card rewards, coming up with approaches to pay down debt, understanding the repayment of student loans in fields that are special cases like education.

Optimizing human health through nutrition, robotics, human colonization of space and the planets.

Human population control. We are not on a sustainable population growth track.

Really sad to see this being downvoted.

Overpopulation is the root cause of many other serious issues such as hunger, lack of access to sanitation/medical treatment/education. We live in a world with finite resources, so the more of us there are, the less each of us gets.

Nuclear fusion power.

Seriously, I don't understand why EMC2 (the polywell team) still relies on the pennies they receive from the Navy. We should be investing at least $200 million into polywell research.

translate cognitive psychology to code

Can you elaborate on this? Are you saying replace therapists with a software product?

I'm talking about general AI as an engineering challenge

Whatever interests them the most.

A fair economy.

Hangover free booze.

Already there in the form of partial agonists for the benzodiazepine receptor. It won't ever get approved.

Or just don't drink too much :-p

Improving voter turnout. Enabling food ingredient dissemination. Job and educational opportunities for ex cons and poor disadvantaged people. Doing something modern with all those idle train tracks. 100x roi blood tests (the thing theranos lied about). There are dozens of big problems. Please share what your short list is and please tone down the saas put downs. A lot of good people have put a lot of their life into building honest businesses.

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