[unrev-II] Identifying the Pivotal Problems

From: Eric Armstrong (eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com)
Date: Thu Jan 20 2000 - 13:21:23 PST

From: Eric Armstrong <eric.armstrong@eng.sun.com>

Repost of message sent to the org after the first session
on the subject of solving the *pivotal* problems that face

-------- Original Message --------
Once again, I was delighted to be part of your recent
colloquium. I was struck, on the one hand, by the
thought that went into the phrasing of the major problems
that were identified. In some respects though, I thought
the list failed to identify some the "pivotal" problems that
tend to keep the others from being solved. In other cases,
I thought that problems were themselves either misstated
or fundamentally "wrong-headed" in important ways.

Herewith, then, my thoughts on the"pivotal" problems.

1. Overpopulation
    Our population growth is a dual-edged sword. On the one
    hand, it provides more synergistic activity that makes it
    possible to solve problems. On the other hand, it is in itself
    a fundamental component of the problems that threaten
    to swap us.

    As one of my colloquium neighbors pointed out, educating
    women is a major issue, because that in itself will lead to
    reduced population. However, a large number of religions
    and political institutions around the world effectively block
    that education process. One major question then, is how to
    overcome those obstacles.

    Solving that problem does not actually produce solutions
    for the other problems, but it can help reduce the pressure,
    allowing more time to find solutions. The fundamental
    issue, there, is...

2. Separation of Church and State
    It is a truism, I think, that the largest atrocities in the history
    of the world have occurred in the name of religious fanaticism.
    --especially if one assumes that persecution of a religion is, in
     essence, a fundamentally "religious" act, regardless of the stated

     In this country, we have long taken the separation of church
     and state for granted. But more than any other factor, it is
     probably responsible for the relatively high degree of freedom
     and the relatively low degree of religious and racial animosity
     and persecution that we enjoy. (Granted, we are not in any
     kind of ideal situation. But when we look at our situation, we
     must agree that the problems have been drastically fewer and
     smaller than in many other regions of the world, especially
     given the potential provocations.)

     In this country, though, we started with a blank slate. The
question is,
     how do you get governments based on entrenched religious dogmas
     to release their grip, and create that separation? This question is

     critical if we are to achieve the worldwide peace we need to
     solve the problems that confront us.

3. Separation of Business and State
    However, while we have achieved a relatively clear separation of
    church and state, we have not achieved a similarly clear separation
    of business and state. When our government was founded, "business"
    did not exist as the kind of institution it is today. So our
    can be forgiven for failing to provide for the separation, but it
    a fundamental -- and extremely pivotal -- problem in the world

    The last 50 years have been an intense education in the ability of
    business to make short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive
    decisions in the name of profit. The tobacco industry immediately
    springs to mind, but so does much of the food processing industry,
    not to mention many activities which are otherwise illegal.

    In the world of law, we understand the necessity to limit the
    of individuals to prevent their self-aggrandisment by harming
    So we outlaw stealing, drug peddling, and the like. What has not
     been established so clearly is the necessity of influencing the
     economic playing field -- using taxes, sanctions, and subsidies, as

     well as laws -- in order to ensure that people and companies can
     follow their own short-sighted interests freely, *without* having
     worry about ultimately adverse consequences.

    In other words, the government should act like the organization that

    creates the rules for the game and the referees that maintain order
    on the field. That activity ensures that teams can pursue their
    self-aggrandizing policies as aggressively as they wish without
    inflicting irreversible harm on the other players.

    In our current system of government, however, big business
    contributions and the lobbyists who stalk the halls of congress have

    a tremendous say in our policies and how they are enforced. In
    effect, the inmates are in charge of the asylum -- a situation that
    produces short term results for industry, but which works to no
    one's ultimate advantage.

    The question then arises, what does it mean to separate business
    and state? This is a question that deserves -- nay, requires --
    serious investigation and which needs answers. More evidence
    on that point will be appearing in the next message, "Regarding
    Several Critical Problems". In the meantime, here are a few ideas
    on *how* to separate business from politics to prime the pump.
    (It's not clear to me which ones are most likely to be efficacious.
     The subject requires a lot of study, and possibly experimentation.)

        * Debate and Personal-Appearance Only elections
           Perhaps all forms of advertising, other than individual
           signs and buttons, should be abolished. Elections might then
           decided on personal appearances, press coverage, debates,
           and the ability to motivate individuals, rather than
           billboards, and 30-second advertising slots.

        * Eliminate the "Everyone Should Vote" idea
           Probably the most insidious idea to undermine a democracy is
           the concept that everyone *should* vote. Everyone should be
           *able* to vote is a reasonable idea. But to make everyone
           is simply to institute government by ignorance. In such a
           it is no wonder that they guy with the most advertising
           wins. I'd much rather have an election by 10,000 people who
           *care*, than by 1,000,000 people who are effectively pulling
           levers at random. Otherwise, as Plato stated in the Republic,

           instead of people listening to the ship maker when it comes
           building a navy, they are swayed by rhetoricians like

        * Plato's Republic
           Plato held that the rulers should be cared for in perpetuity,
           have to worry about income, and be disallowed from gathering
           wealth for themselves. He felt this would clear their heads
so they
           would worry about the people without distractions. It's a bit

           idealistic, but it's an idea.

        * A voting elite
           Maybe voting should be in the hands of a set of people who
           earned that privilege, in the same way that they take a
driving test.
           Perhaps a similarly bottom-line capability to distinguish
           spurious and valid arguments should be required. Like a
           test, the questions would not require a degree in logic, but
           truly basic reasoning ability with questions like, "Which is
           important in selecting a candidate: a) The policies they
           b) The color of their clothes, c) How good looking is their
           d) What kind of car they drive?

        * A voting non-elite
           Perhaps anyone that makes more than $N should not be allowed
           to vote, or contribute to elections! Maybe money has enough
           influence on policy that the best way to provide an
           "check" to balance that influence is to eliminate it totally
from the
           voting process.

        * Non-profit corporations
           Perhaps the day of "profit" has come and gone. If all
           were required to be "non-profit", what effect would that
           Would they raise salaries of their employees, increasing
           power? Would they purchase more themselves, stimulating the
           economy? Would they donate more money to charities and fund
           more "public works" projects?

           Details of this kind of proposal need to be worked out, of
           Perhaps dividends should count as an expense, for this
           That way, if a company is making a lot of money but
           it to it's shareholders, it is not accumulating the kinds of
           profits that tobacco industry has, for example. Similarly,
           something like "6 month's operating expenses" in the bank
           not be construed so much as profit, but rather as a
           fund against adverse economic conditions.

        * Meritocracy
           Steve Forbes has an arrangement with his kids -- when he
           the bulk of his wealth goes to charity. They will have had
           advantage of the best possible education, in addition to
their name
           and many great contacts, but what they make of themselves
           still be fundamentally up to them.

           If this policy were enshrined as part of the political
system, then the
           wealth might possibly provide a "safety blanket" for every
           that allows them to go to college or start a company (while
           in no-frills dormitory, perhaps). Such a policy would put an
           to the never-ending process of the rich getting richer, and
           produce a more equitable distribution of wealth based on
           persistence, and effort rather than family fortune.

4. Abstract Knowledge Mathematics
    We face an exponentially growing body of information -- much of
    which is redundant, superfluous, or vacuous. We drastically need
    the kind of "symbolic logic" that was explored earlier in this
    in order to:
       a) Reduce the amount of information we need to store
       b) Create a computerized knowledge system that humans can
           interact with successfully

   It is likely that the Open Hypertext System would benefit greatly
   the use of an abstract "knowledge mathematics". But producing such a
   thing is a deep theoretical problem that requires our very best

   We have made such huge advances in relational and object-oriented
   databases, however, that it could conceivably be possible today to
   manage the complexity of such a system. At bottom, the problem is
   about specifying things, relationships between them, and the evidence

   for those relationships, in such a way that we can reason about them
   at multiple levels of abstraction.

   For example, it is equally true to say that "essential fatty acids
   for cell membrane permeability" as it is to say, "This omega-6 fatty
   in a phospholipid base, manages the transport of the oxygen molecule
   past the cell wall and into the cell." The same knowledge base needs
   be usable for supporting and generating propositions of either kind,
   either more abstract or more refined, as need dictates.

   One advantage to having an abstract knowledge representation will
   be the ability to operate in any number of spoken languages.
   So "a --> b" becomes "a implies b" in english, but something else in
   Swahili. That would allow people from around the world to contribute
   and use the same body of knowledge, unimpeded by language

   (On a bleaker note, given the depth of the problem, it is not clear
    there is sufficient time to develop such a system and make use of
    It may therefore make more sense to use an existing language,
    the value of a more abstract representation.)

5. Man/Machine Symbiosis
    This, clearly, is one of the most critical problems we have. We have

    *still* to define, much less implement, a really powerful symbiotic
    capability between man and machine.

    For example, one of the attendees at the seminar pointed out that
    seven years after graduating, 50% of a doctor's education is out of
    date. That is extreme! Much better then, would be a system where
    doctors routinely consult computerized databases for the latest
    information. But how should that interaction occur? What is the best

    mechanism? These are questions that need addressing.

    One possible way for approaching the problem is to set up games.
    One game, for example, might be to diagnose and treat a computerized

    patient. Teams of doctors, individual doctors, software programs,
    and man/machine combinations could then attempt to treat the
    The patient would simulate a response to each intervention, and the
    players would react. Those who save the most lives would "win".

    Such a game would be open to all comers, with the goal being to find

    the most effective combination of man and machine. The winners,
    besides earning bragging rights, would provide the model for all
    kinds of man/machine systems -- a model that would be further
    refined each year with advances in interface designs and computing

Several "pivotal" problems were identified, and some thoughts on
each were expostulated. Next: "Regarding Several Critical Problems".

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