The Hard Problem

Within the first few pages of the second to last chapter of the important book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future  by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Northeastern University’s Jeff Howe, I found a jarring sentence. It came as part of an introductory description of how MIT Media Lab Synthetic Neurobiologist Ed Boyden looks at the human brain.

To Boyden, “The brain is more verb than noun.”

That’s it. Those seven single syllable words knocked me off my path for a few days. And the reason, actually has nearly nothing to do with the brain.

Let me unpack that.

The brain’s one hundred billion neurons make a thousand times more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The result of that, Ito and Howe continue, is that ten human brains have as much storage capacity as all the hard drives manufactured in the year I started college, 1995. And the four computers on earth that have been able to duplicate the natural human processing speed each fill up an entire warehouse and each use as much power as 10,000 American households.

The human brain fits in the space between our ears. And runs on about as much power as it takes to run a single low wattage light bulb.

No one part of the brain has ever been identified to show what makes love or anger or jealousy or any other uniquely human reaction. Those feelings are manufactured somewhere in the space between the spaces, as a function of the billions of interactions that go on every second in a phenomenon known as emergence.

An emergent property is something that appears when a number of simpler entities, like neurons, operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective. Our emotions and even more so, our consciousness are text book examples of emergence. And since our consciousness and emotions are often the things that tend to go off the rails with neurological or mental disorders, it’s pretty easy to see why we don’t have great answers for them. There’s no fix X object and change Y behavior. We can nudge emotions and behaviors by drowning the whole environment in chemicals, but we can’t fix them.

Ito and Howe later go on to describe Boyden’s approach to the brain. He asks his team, “If we’ve solved it 50 years from now, we’re going to have to invent a bunch of tools to make that happen. What were those tools? And what ones do we need to get to work on first.”

The goal is not to fix the brain. The goal is to brain better.

In 1978, The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) decided that it wanted to reform the Chinese economic system. Over the previous century they’d been through consolidation and the rise of a communist regime, a cultural revolution that had purged them of intellectualism and a “Leap Forward” that had starved 45 million people to death. So when the architect of this viciously flawed progress, Mao Zedong died in 1976, the CPC decided perhaps, they needed a change in direction.

China decided, they needed to China better.

The result was the establishment of two dozen or so Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in cities and coastal areas that behaved, for lack of a better word, like free market capitalist societies. Combined with participation in global free trade, the economic innovation of SEZ’s has resulted in double digit economic growth for nearly 40 years. Like it or not, China, in my lifetime, is one of the greatest stories of financial modernization and growth the world has ever seen. It’s created a growing and empowered middle class that most believe will one day outgrow the constraints of communism. And it worked because it’s architects identified what China in 2050 needed to look like to succeed. And they identified the tools that were needed and which ones they needed to get to work on first.

They looked at China the way Boyden looks at the brain. As a massive complex operating system that in order to be operated more effectively, needed tools that didn’t exist yet. So they made them.

Last month, Harvard drop out Mark Zuckerberg delivered the commencement speech at his would be alma mater. In it he said the following:

“We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company. We’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives.”

A cursory search of social media responses on Facebook, the platform that Zuckerberg founded that is surpassed only by the platform of humanity in its membership of humans, yielded quite a bit. Much of it sounded like this:

“Stupidest supposed smart guy, ever. Run your shitty company & shut the fuck up. No one cares to hear about your failed ideas.”

“How comes it’s always the billionaires that have stupid ideas of how to spend my money? How many of his own employees could he support, out of his bank account, with his idea? Douche!”

“Dumbest economics idea I’ve heard in a long time.”

As for my own reaction and an honest explanation of what the human brain, Chinese Special Economic Zones and Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement speech have in common, it’s pretty simple. At least I thought it was. The world is full of hard problems. Hard problems like the brain or like how to move 1.2 billion Chinese into a global leadership role. Hard problems like figuring out how to America better for the next century. What makes them so similar clearly isn’t the details. It’s the fact that the outcomes that we so seek to solve these hard problems are emergent activities.

The emergent activities of effective behaviors coming from the interaction of billions of neurons.

The emergent activity of a thriving middle class rising from the failed starvation of communism from a network of focused free market activities.

And the emergent outcome of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from the complexity of self-governing the most diverse society the world has ever seen: America.

Mark Zuckerberg brought some ideas. He looked at where the world was going from where he was sitting and asked the same questions of those bright eyed Harvard kids that Boyden asked of his team. What tools are we going to have invented to get this right. And which ones do we need to get started on first?

You don’t have to agree. In fact, I agree very little with the suggestions that Zuckerberg had as stated. Agreement isn’t the point though. It never is. The point is to have your own answers to Boyden’s questions. And if America is a noun in yours, if it’s some place to travel back in time to, some destination to be remembered fondly or a cloak to wrap around us to protect us from the cold realities of an uncertain world, then you’re not likely to be the ones that unlock the next fifty years of leadership for America. And if that scared backward focus continues to be the prevailing course for America, we’re really only a generation or so away from China America’ing better than we do.

It won’t be because we’ve lost our way. It will be because we were too afraid to ever leave in the first place. 

2 replies »

  1. I have a file in my computer labeled “Seeds of the Federation”. The Federation referred to is the United Federation of Planets. I like that idea of the future as much as or more than any I’ve seen so far. This essay goes in that file for future reference. Not that I agree with you totally; but you raise interesting points to consider in molding that future. (FYI, if I use someone’s work in an essay or whatever, I cite by author, name, and date of publication. By “use” I mean quote.)


  2. This was a wonderfully stimulating post! Thank you for the Ito reference.
    I feel the need for a cyber salon where ideas such as these are discussed in meaningful, not dismissive ways. In such an instance, I would ask you which Zuckerberg ideas you find faulty and why. I’m not looking to defend any position or idea, just longing for a decent discussion! Thanks, again!