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Changing Rules of the Olympics

October 2, 2014

Citius, Altius, Fortius. -- Faster, Higher, Stronger. It's the motto of the Olympics. But it also seems to be the motto of the twentieth-century lifestyle. We strive to conserve every second of every minute of every day, looking for ways to achieve things in ever faster, better, more efficient ways than before. We're constantly out looking for better solutions to our problems, throwing the best of our technology, science, and time behind them. This constant search for answers to our problems is what drives our society. For this reason, we're constantly and consistently trained in our course of education and life to become problem-solvers. When presented with a problem or a task, we are educated so that our instinct is to look for the singularly unique solution, the optimal way to achieve the goal. Such approaches suited us well leading up to today, but as with most things, the post-industrial conditions have changed the circumstances, and our answer-seeking instincts don't serve us as well as they have in the past.

When discussing human history, people often look at the large-scale pivoting points of civilization: the revolutions. The agricultural revolution lead to our escape from nomadic lifestyles to cities and larger communities, giving our society hierarchy, government, and social roles. The industrial revolution further continued the trend, solidifying social structure and stabilizing society's abilities to be productive economically and in the development of the sciences. And I believe we're now just on the brink of yet another revolution, catalyzed by the rapid development of the Internet. If the agricultural revolution democratized food supply and other critical needs, and the industrial revolution created a massive jump in the economic throughput of societies in manufacturing goods, this third revolution brings the jump in the availability of information -- of knowledge. It's been referred to with the popular terminology, "Big Data", and it's not too far off. The amount of data generated today is incredible and ever increasing, just as the amount of goods and economic growth in the industrialization was skyrocketing. But with these revolutionary changes come equally groundbreaking and radical developments in how our societies function. Social hierarchies and the modus operandi of organizations and companies shift, and we've always taken a bit of time to adjust to the new ways of things.

But here's where the issue comes in. Between the industrial explosion of manufacturing and the agricultural explosion was a time gap of several millennia; people had all the time in the world to adjust to the new structures of society. But it's comparatively only been a blink of an eye, and the society isn't ready to shift its way of thinking just yet. Still, the technology marches forward, doing its own thing in opening the floodgates to another shift in how we work as a community. Our old ways of operating doesn't suit the changes that are coming fast, and one of the critical misconceptions that we have in entering this age of Data is that there is a singular, uniquely correct solution to every problem. This mindset is extremely useful for the industrial times. The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), often regarded as the most important* in our current mindset, emphasizes that misconception well. There's only one correct answer to a math problem, only one correct result to an experiment, and only one "best way" to solve an engineering dilemma. In those core fields, there is a clearly defined, "best answer". But it's increasingly apparent that, in the years to come, that line between correct and incorrect solutions will continue to blur. Our previously useful worldview is no longer valid.

Let's consider an example. Say you're a budding computer science engineer looking for a job, and you have a killer idea for an app. What's the correct answer to how to found a company? Hm...... What about the design of your app? How can you be different and unique from other companies with similar products? These questions are harder to answer than a math problem, simply because they don't have a uniquely correct answer. Increasingly, the way the world works doesn't revolve around how fast you achieve your goals, how much money your made, how much better you are at certain things, or how many successful attempts you have under your belt. Those are the rules of the last revolution. These are being replaced by the rules of creativity. It's not about how much faster you are at doing something, it's how innovative and different you are at reaching those milestones.

Annually, Intel hosts an International Science Fair, gauging the scientific abilities and creative skills of students around the world. In 2013, the winner of the ISEF was Nathan Han, a 16-year-old who had used a machine-learning algorithm to more accurately predict factors that affect breast cancer. To me, the most interesting thing about this research is not that this algorithm is more accurate than others or more scientifically rigorous, but that it's something that's not been done before. Machine learning algorithms are what's used to filter out your spam mail -- the same algorithms are used by Siri to understand your voice, YouTube to see which videos you're likely to watch next, and Google to predict the World Cup winner of 2014. The winner found a use for this in a medical field where there didn't previously exist anything like it. The point is, the rules of success in our society is changing as our infrastructure evolves rapidly. It's not about who's the fastest, the most successful, or the most powerful in pursuing a single goal, but instead who can take advantage of the mountain of resources available to us to create something novel.

Contrary to what schools will have you believe, there isn't a correct answer to a problem. And if there's a problem like that, it's probably not relevant to the shifting reality. There were once correct answers; that used to be the case, but the rules are being re-written. Who can get the most correct answer is not important anymore, because we have tools and resources that can get us those answers faster than you can. The question now should not be to spit out the right solution, but rather to find the right questions to ask.

In Douglas Adams's A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an unimaginably powerful computer is built to answer any question in the universe. The book denotes the answer to "the question of life, the universe, and everything" as forty-two, according to the fictional computer. But if the answer is forty-two, "what's the question?", asks Adams. So in order to find the question that would prompt this answer, an even more powerful model is created: thus, the Earth comes into being, created by these beings to find the question of everything. I think we've entrenched ourselves too deeply in the labyrinth of finding answers to questions without first considering if those questions are relevant or important to us in the first place. I think as a society, we are approaching an age where being the supercomputer doesn't impress or help anyone, simply because we don't need them as much anymore. I believe the more important goal now is not to become a society of supercomputers, but a community of Earths: a society that asks the right questions and opens the right doors to craft a future that's not just faster, better, or larger but more valuable and fruitful. The Olympics is great and all, but the allegory between sports and reality seems to be fading. So what's next?"

I don't know. But I think that's a good question to begin with.

*A false belief, I might add, but that's a story (rant) for another time.