Of Hammers And Nails: Solving The Right Problems

The world of technologists is an exciting bubble. Few other groups make such strong claims to a monopoly of power to alter the world for the better. From the inside, Silicon Valley can feel like a utopia factory. In place of molten iron flowing into blast furnaces to forge steel, ideas on whiteboards and mathematics flow into code editors and onto the app store to make the world a better place.

One could argue that this sense of importance is justified. Since the dawn of the ages, technology in its most general sense, and in the last century information technology in particular, has made the world a better place. Despite the doom and gloom we are accustomed to from newspaper headlines every day, today’s generation has it good. The standard of living across the globe is higher than it has ever been in the history of mankind. On average people live longer and are healthier, richer, better fed, more educated, less affected by war and conflict, less dependent on the circumstances of their birth as a determinant of their future and, most importantly, enjoy more freedom than ever before. Innovations in medical, industrial and computer technology are to thank for many of these improvements. A little self-congratulation for us technologists is not out of place.

Besides past laurels, novel technology can simply seem very exciting. Virtual Reality seems pretty cool. Blockchains seem also cool. Chatbots seem very cool too. And more than anything, artificial intelligence is about the coolest thing sliced bread. Wow! So cool! In fact, few other fields have received as much attention and have had expectations for its ability to aid humanity rise so high as AI. Having worked at one of the top AI research labs during peak hype, I know what it feels like to work on a technology that people expect to elevate mankind and be surrounded by people who believe strongly in this.

Unfortunately, I often sense a disconnect between the excitement for technology exuded by technologists — myself included — and the problems the world and its inhabitants actually face. Blockchains haven’t lifted people out of poverty, they’ve instead made it easier for organized crime to launder money. Virtual reality hasn’t made it easier for doctors to perform heart surgery yet and still fails to attract legitimate interest from anybody but ardent gamers. Chatbots have become a great interface to dial up a human being who can actually help you with your problem. Even AI has, in my opinion, yet to live up to its very high expectations. It has without doubt delivered plenty of valuable improvements to our lives: somewhat-self-driving cars, faster shopping with Amazon Go, fantastic language translation, more tailored internet content and safer borders (my current line of work). But I would shy away from calling any of these more than “incremental” in the grand scheme of human happiness and societal progression.

A few years ago a friend shared a metaphor with me that struck right into the midst of this issue and has stuck with me ever since. The “technologists trap” is often to invent a new, advanced form of hammer and then proceed arduously to seek nails that can be hammered with this exciting new tool, only to find that nobody really needed this new hammer or that the nails that fit the hammer are not of such great importance. AI is a perfect example. It may well be the shiniest hammer ever forged and upon its discovery thousands of the best and brightest rushed out looking under rocks for nails to hammer with it. Might businesses want chatbots on their website? What if doorbells could tell you who’s ringing? Could we replace this and that task with AI?

I like the metaphor of the hammer and nail because I think it points out the problem quite well. I believe the approach of saying “I have this new hammer, what nails can I hammer with it” meaning “I have this new technology, what problems can I solve with it” is somewhat backwards. It puts emphasis on the technology rather than on solving a problem. The world fundamentally doesn’t need more exciting technology, it needs fewer problems.

Let’s consider the alternative approach: you identify nails and develop a hammer for them. Take the Spinning Jenny, a key development during the industrial revolution that greatly multiplied the output of cotton production in 18th century England. James Hargreaves, its inventor, did not come up with some hyped-up new tech and then went on a search for who might find it useful. He first identified the problem that cotton factories struggled to match their output with the demand for cloth and then went about to build a solution for it, which subsequently revolutionized the textile industry.

Elon Musk is another good example of someone who took the nails-first approach. In an interview he gave a few years ago, he stated that when he was in college, he asked himself “what are the things that are most going to benefit the future of humanity”. He settled on electric cars, solar power and, later on, space exploration. He then went ahead and built successful ventures that addressed each of these problem spaces, using technologies available at the time and improving them – monumentally – as necessary to reach his goals. He didn’t stop there either. Upon identifying the troubles of America’s transportation system, he promptly devised two new solutions with his Hyperloop and Boring Company ideas. Elon Musk gets it.

Fortunately, the free market does its part to regulate the technologist’s trap. By the will of the people and the invisible hand of the market, companies that provide insufficient value, whose solutions don’t solve real problems, are eliminated. The hammer and nail analogy translates quite nicely beyond technology and to business in general. I recently learned this myself when some friends and I came up with a business idea. We thought we had a great solution for a certain market niche. When we subsequently talked to people, we found that few actually had the problem our solution was solving. We had an exciting hammer, but failed to find any nails.

Even if one does find suitable nails to hammer, or one does convince the other party that they really have the sort of problem one’s solution addresses, it still leaves the question whether that problem is actually the right one – the really important one – to solve. Unfortunately, market value and societal value are not the same. There are numerous examples of companies that have grown rich on the basis of some popular but not particularly enlightening technology. The market rewards them for the value they provide to their customers in the form of entertainment, convenience, pleasure or otherwise. That does not mean that their innovations have advanced mankind or bettered society. Just because they found nails that fit their hammer, does not mean that those were the nails that really needed hammering.

The age-old adage has it right: Necessity is the mother of invention. Invention should not be the mother of necessity. Let’s not see problems where there aren’t any. There are enough problems out there begging for solutions. So why not try Elon Musk’s approach and ask ourselves what the biggest challenges facing humanity are today and will be tomorrow. When I ask myself this question, I find that all problems I can think of boil down to the following three basic necessities for a happy, fulfilling life on earth for humans:

  • Health
  • Freedom
  • Opportunity

There are plenty of problems in each of these areas:

  • The eradication of disease (health)
  • The efficiency, affordability and accessibility of education (opportunity)
  • Equality and accessibility of economic opportunities regardless of origin, race and gender (opportunity)
  • Freedom of thought, expression and enterprise (freedom)
  • War, terrorism and crime (freedom, opportunity)
  • Collectivist ideology (freedom, opportunity)
  • Drug addiction (opportunity)
  • Space exploration (opportunity)

These, I think, are the really thorny problems of our time. I want technology to solve these problems, not to produce another TikTok. Many of these may seem like policy issues, addressable more by government and politicians than killer apps and websites. However, here the technologist in me comes back to life and makes the claim that technology has, again and again, been a strong vector for change in all parts of our society. I believe technology can forge the right tool to hammer these nails. We sure as hell should give it a good shot.