Can Facebook’s New Millionaires Save the World?

5/18/12Follow @wroush

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make problem resolution painless as possible for both sides, and that work in all languages via phone, text message, the Web, and what-have-you.

Reinvent the classroom. Technology is turning the teaching process inside out as lectures move to the Web and classroom time is used for interaction and problem-solving. But most “learning management systems” are still just bureaucracy-ridden time sinks for teachers, and do little to improve actual learning. We need technologies that help teachers be more efficient and that build on what we know about cognition to keep students engaged inside and outside the classroom. (Paul Graham actually did hit on this one—he called it “Replace Universities.”)

Mass-produce cheap, reliable robots for homes, hospitals, and farms. Many of the boring and back-breaking tasks people do around the world, like cooking dinner, lifting bedridden patients, or harvesting rice and other crops, could be outsourced to robots. But that will only happen once the cost of the robots (including maintenance) falls below the cost of human labor. It’s time to make robots as ubiquitous as mobile phones.

Make it easier for people to eat better. Nutrition-related “diabesity”—the combination of obesity and diabetes—is quickly becoming one of the costliest and most damaging health problems in this country, especially for poor and minority populations. Blunting agribusiness’s emphasis on selling junk food is obviously part of the solution. But there must be some combination of information and distribution technologies that would help people find healthier alternatives and green the nation’s food deserts.

Go jujitsu on climate change. It’s not too late to slow global warming, but it’s probably too late to stop it. So smart entrepreneurs should start thinking about ways to take advantage of the coming shifts. Will some bioengineered crops fare better in warmer climates? Are there ways to extract heat from the atmosphere and use it to offset fossil fuel consumption? I don’t know—I’m just saying there might be ways to make some lemonade here.

Find better ways to harvest food from the oceans, or from the insect world. By 2050 there will be at least 9 billion mouths to feed, and, very likely, less arable land and less fresh water to support crops and livestock. We’d better start figuring out ways to make tasty and nutritious entrées from seaweed and crickets.

Discover a better battery chemistry that’s cheaper, less toxic and less dependent on rare elements. The advent of lighter, more efficient, longer-lasting batteries would spark another revolution in mobile devices (your iPad is essentially a giant battery with a sheet of glass on the front). It would also go a long way toward making renewable energy sources such as wind and solar more practical.

Invent an A/V system that actually works. I have yet to attend or organize a professional conference where the microphones, loudspeakers, and projection systems worked flawlessly, without feedback or awkward on-stage adjustments. Okay, this one might not be so hard or so important—but it’s 2012, people. Should we really still have to ask if the mic is on?

Some of these ideas may sound far out. I’m not saying that ex-Facebookers should abandon their training in business or computer science and become climatologists, roboticists, entomologists, or oceanographers. But they can certainly take the lessons they’ve learned about building scalable systems and harnessing natural human behaviors and apply them to problems outside social networking. And they can still be coders, since better software—built on a real understanding of how complex human systems work—will be a big part of the solution for all of the problems above.

After today’s IPO, it won’t be long before the entrepreneurial itch takes hold at Sun Quentin (as Facebook’s isolated Menlo Park campus was known to its previous inhabitants). The question is how Facebookers will channel this urge. “They need to start looking beyond social media and quick-and-dirty apps and start focusing on saving the world,” Vivek Wadhwa says. “Today, entrepreneurs can solve the problems of humanity. The cost of developing technologies for solving our grand challenges—hunger, disease, health, and so on—has dropped dramatically. I hope to see these kids thinking big and taking their newfound wealth and using it to do some good for the world.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Chimuan

    You’ve got some great ideas. Why don’t YOU do something about them?

  • tomando

    > To whom much is given, much shall be required.
    I suspect a lot of those engineers who toiled in the dark programming for years would loudly tell you they weren’t “given” anything: they saw an opportunity, worked hard ridiculous hours and produced something that apparently 900M people are willing to spend a lot of time using.

    One could argue, they have already presented society with a net benefit (a free to the user, open, social communication mechanism)  and now they get to “enjoy” the fruits of that labor.

    Some may work on the next big thing, some may change careers, some may simply go surfing…. so be it.  The next big thing will be driven by the hunger of the next engineer in the capitalist system: if pushing money at problems solved them, the government would be a net creative force in society rather than a “debt machine”.

    A big problem, a big market and an engineer hungry for success will be a more likely producer of the next big thing.