Know What's Important

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tech blogger Yossi Kreinin urges his readers to "Work on Unimportant Problems", making several very good points and raising some interesting issues along the way. Comparing the number of Google hits for "Work on Important Problems" to his post's eventual title, Kreinin admits that his "contrarian" impulses were stirred by this example of conventional wisdom (nearly 41,000 search results versus eighteen). Good for him and his readers: People shouldn't uncritically accept the guidance of others, no matter how well-intentioned or how good it might sound.

I found Kreinin's two main points interesting. First, Kreinin notes many examples of work in areas most people would regard as unimportant (or even frivolous, like computer games) that has led to or enabled real progress in important problems.

For instance, [graphics processing unit] hardware was developed to run first-person shooters with increasingly fancier graphics. Today, it powers some of the largest high-performance computing clusters where "important" science is done.

... Hardware originally designed for scientific computing is dead - Cray is the iconic example - and replaced by cheaper and more powerful microprocessors designed to run things like office software.
I draw two immediate lessons from this. First, incentives -- interest in a problem coupled with the prospect of financial gain due to meeting a market demand -- drive progress. Second, there is no telling in advance when the solution to one problem might apply to another.

Second, Kreinin cites a negative example, quoting "Philip Greenspun, a software entrepreneur, a flight instructor and an expert witness in both software-related and aviation-related lawsuits, [who] had this to say about [an aviation] disaster:"
Who crashed Colgan 3407? Actually the autopilot did. ... The airplane had all of the information necessary to prevent this crash. The airspeed was available in digital form. The power setting was available in digital form. The status of the landing gear was available in digital form. ...

How come the autopilot software on this $27 million airplane wasn't smart enough to fly basically sensible attitudes and airspeeds? Partly because FAA certification requirements make it prohibitively expensive to develop software or electronics that go into certified aircraft. It can literally cost $1 million to make a minor change. Sometimes the government protecting us from small risks exposes us to much bigger ones. [bold added]
Kreinin's immediate lesson is basically that government regulation directly hinders innovation in several important areas. (Perhaps it also indirectly and in part explains why market size in such areas is small.) My immediate lesson is somewhat different, and may perhaps make more sense later (although I don't plan to elaborate on it): It's important to get the government out of the business of dictating how "important" problems are solved!

This is all well and good, but I think Kreinin would have done well to be even more contrarian: He should have questioned not just the conventional wisdom that one should tackle important problems, but the normal use of the word "important" itself. A commenter sort of does this when she suggests that one should, "... work on something that is important to you - something that you know a lot about, something you are passionate about."

Such a line of questioning might start off with something like, "Important? To whom?" Nobody did this better than Ayn Rand did, when she ended up questioning the whole basis of ethics, the branch of philosophy dealing with normative judgements such as those regarding what is important, and even what the term means.
Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all--and why?
Rand's answer hinged on the fact that man, as a living being, must identify and acquire what he, as an individual, needs to survive and prosper. All of these aspects of ethics directly bear on what is (or can be) important, most notably on the fact that "important" is a term applicable, fundamentally, to the individual, in accordance with his nature as a rational being.

Aircraft safety is important, but so is recreation. Men have a plethora of needs (including but not limited to those enabling his physical survival) and choices, all of which division of labor in a free market makes possible to solve. While people can and do make foolish choices and can be mistaken about what is important, the real lesson here is that there is a much broader range of "important" than many people suppose: There is no shame in deciding, say, to work on video games "instead of", say, aircraft safety (as if everyone even should or could do this!), so long as the choice is carefully considered and serves as well as possible in the circumstances, to advance one's own interests.

Kreinin is definitely on the right track, and perhaps I'd have used his title for its attention-grabbing power, but I think the real lesson is something like this: "Work on important problems, but know what the word 'important' really means."

-- CAV


Jim May said...

GPU's are having quite an effect on my industry now, speeding up things like particle simulations. I'm going to attend a workshop this coming Saturday on just that topic.

Regarding high cost niche markets created by government, here's one that has been sticking in my craw of late: hearing aids. $6000 for the entry level Beltone, in this era of $15 bluetooth earpieces?!? Horsehockey. There is a dedicated storefront near here that sells nothing but these things. Can you say fat margins? Parasitical industry? Sinecures? It's entirely a product of government intervention in the market. Shocking, I know.

I've been thinking of contacting some hardware and software hackers to design and build cheap, open-source replacement devices, complete with software that you can use to evaluate your hearing loss/frequency attenuation at home, and it simply feeds the filter information into the device via USB.

Gus Van Horn said...

No surprise there.

Your idea for a solution may surprise many in this day and age since it doesn't involve lobbying for government hearing aid subsidies, and it carries with it the risk of jail time for yourself unless you attach a huge label to the device saying that it is intended neither to be a hearing aid nor a medical device.