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Ask HN: What are these "important problems" we keep reading about?
14 points by tfb 1564 days ago | hide | past | web | 11 comments | favorite
It seems a recurring theme throughout a number of articles and blog posts submitted here outline working on "important problems" as something strongly coveted in the software engineering industry. Most people would probably define these problems differently, specific to their own domain or recent experiences, but I have a feeling there's a fair bit of common ground.

To generalize, I would consider any difficult yet solvable (in the near future) problem - that upon solving would ultimately raise some standard of living - to fall into the "important problem" category. And I would also assume, from my own experience, that these problems are either presently unsolved or their current solutions are less than adequate; and producing an optimal answer would be extremely satisfying to the point of feeling like life as an engineer/contributor to society is one step closer to completion.

Conversely, it might help to examine "unimportant problems", ones that might be too monotonous or easy. Or maybe solving them doesn't quite scratch an itch. But in solving them, you know you're one step closer to achieving a greater goal.

So with that said, what problems do you consider worthwhile? What are these "important problems" we keep reading about?

Edit: I should have been more clear and mentioned where I see the term come up most. It seems to be mentioned almost weekly on various startups' blogs, most of which are geared towards web apps and the like. It would be interesting to discuss the non-obvious "important problems" from hackers' perspectives.

Couldn't we say that any solution that makes life easier raises the standard of living? A better interface, faster software, etc... Product & idea iterations improve the standard of living in the future because their effects snowball overtime. They are also stepping stones for their creators to move onto better and "more important" problems.

Truly important problems - the ones where a solution would make an immediate and significant positive impact in some way for the human race - would be things like solving multi-planetary existence (figure out how to survive a lifetime on Mars and grow), ending poverty, ending crime, ending corruption, ending world hunger... There's a lot. To me, these are the end steps of whatever these "important problems" solve. For instance, we can't end crime until we end corruption, have a government system that people don't need to circumvent for anything, and have everybody be satisfied enough not to commit even the smallest crime. I once read that in Soviet Russia, people would illegally offer their repair services to individuals and companies that didn't want to wait for scheduled maintenance or replacement (or something similar to that idea.)

The problems we solve today are steps and pieces along the way to reach these end Utopian style goals (living on Mars isn't Utopian.. but the other things I listed are.)


Start at the bottom of that diagram and work your way up

EDIT: Based on the edited original post, let me elaborate. The most important things are at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of Needs. The "important problems" as I see them are the ones at the bottom - food, water, health, resources. If you found a way to hack clean water, food supply, or disease, those would be important problems, compared to say, a social network, or video sharing site (these would be at the top of the pyramid).

The trouble with Maslow's hierarchy is that it's a psychological framework that sounds good, but has no basis in fact.

The "Criticisms" section of the article touches on most of the major concerns, so if you consider taking this advice, please consider digging into it properly, not superficially.

The hierarchy is just for illustration purposes. I'm sure you would agree that a startup that solves problems of food, shelter, health, or resources is solving a more important problem than one addressing creativity or self esteem? What would you address first if you were shipwrecked on a deserted island? This is true regardless of what Maslow said.

Except, it's not true regardless, that's the whole point of the criticisms.

First, we're not all shipwrecked, and I don't think trying to solve problems for those who are is going to be a valuable enterprise in the long term.

Second, the criticisms specifically circle around both an egocentric and ethnocentric view of psychology which has not borne out in testing. Different cultures in different contexts prioritize things differently.

s/shipwrecked/third world/

The original poster specifically mentioned that he was looking for problems to raise the standard of living:

I would consider any difficult yet solvable (in the near future) problem - that upon solving would ultimately raise some standard of living - to fall into the "important problem" category

In that context, a startup that made a device that could desalinize water cheaply would be solving an important problem. A startup that helped me share files between my phone and computer would not, though it would probably be more profitable.

Thanks. Although I was hoping to get some real, personal examples of what folks here consider to be important problems.

Personally, I would say the (probably obvious) examples would be medicine (or quality of life improvements approaching old age), reduction of famine, and freely available and easily accessible information / learning.

I should have been a little more clear as what I was getting at. I wrote it pretty hastily. See my edit on the original post.

Paul Graham defines "ambitious"-important problems differently than others have. I use Dr. Richard Hamming's version, from his talk, You and Your Research: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html

And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?"

Hamming constrained important problems not just to global or personal significance, but also added a factor of solvability. You had to have a way to attack a problem for it to matter, and if you didn't, you should be working on problems that would lead you there, somehow, maybe, hopefully, indirectly. Broad experience was just as important as technical chops.

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, "important problem" must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.

I tackle important problems for designers in my recent essay, You and Your Designs, published in this quarter's issue of Distance: http://distance.cc/

I give examples of five important problems in design, and explain why:

1. Responsive web design, because it exposes content and content management as a first-order design constraint.

2. A/B testing, because intentionally and purposefully trying different things goes against how many of us were raised as designers.

3. The Internet of Things, because it means we can do away with metaphors and have physical objects that contain their own meaning.

4. "Big data" and "computational X," because they represent the event horizon for designer-as-polymath.

5. "Immersive I/O" and "natural user interfaces," because they remove our "sensory deprived and physically limited" constraints on interactions with technology.

I wrote in a different comment elsewhere, the interesting thing about entrepreneurship is, you don't have to be limited by your field of academic research, and your lunch tables of chemists and mathematicians can be those of any industry in the world. Working on important problems means your work will have long-term meaning.

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