Moses Lake, WA 98837, USA

Solving complex problems is a human superpower

By CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
For The Basin Business Journal

KENNEWICK — Ordinary human beings have superpowers.

That’s what noted hacker, inventor and speaker Pablos Holman told attendees during his keynote address at the Washington-Oregon Potato Conference in January.

While human beings have lived on Earth for several hundred thousand years, our population has only grown substantially since the year 1700. And that rapid population growth frames everything we are experiencing in the world today, Holman said.

“We solved hard technical problems that kept humans from thriving,” Holman said. “How do you feed that many people? Give them jobs? Give them homes? Eradicate the diseases that are killing them off?”

That human beings have done these things is, all by itself, a superpower, Holman said.

And the sheer amount of computer power we’ve invented in the last several decades has given us a surplus, more computational ability to crunch numbers than we know what to do with.

And that will help us continue to find solutions to the tough questions Holman said still define human existence.

“We have computation to waste, but it gives us power,” he said. “We have so much data no human could ever parse it.”

“But a computer can do it just like that,” Holman added, snapping his fingers.

Holman — who splits his time between Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures Labs, Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, and a relentless speaking schedule — didn’t have much to say about potatoes. Or even agriculture, at least not directly. But he did have a lot to say about technology and hacking, and how those two things together allow people to create new ways of doing things and disrupt existing industries.

Hackers look at both technologies and processes to try and get inside them, to test each part or process to see where they break, Holman explained, and figure out what can be made from the rubble.

“This is fundamental to innovation and invention,” he said.

Holman described ongoing attempts to “hack” the lifespan of the malaria parasite, and how using lasers to identify the female Anopheles mosquito evolved into shooting those mosquitoes down with lasers — a pesticide system that can tell good bugs from bad and only kill the bad ones, Holman said.

“You can shoot down as many mosquitoes as you want and not even PETA will come to save them,” he said.

Yes, it’s expensive to use lasers to kill insect pests, and computers to measure wingbeats to identify bugs, “but it gets cheaper every year,” Holman said, and right now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking at using lasers to protect to orange trees from the Asian citrus psyllid — a tiny insect that is destroying the Florida citrus industry.

“We are no longer computationally constrained, our imaginations are constrained,” Holman said.

In business, successful startups find a way into and around established ways of doing things. Holman, who said he wasn’t particularly impressed with “opportunistic businesses” like Facebook and Uber, said any taxi company could have invented an app to schedule rides.

But it took an outsider to see things differently and take advantage of all this computing power in a new and different way.

“Silicon Valley startups will not try to fix your industry,” Holman said. “They’ll start from scratch, take all the superpowers they get from their computers, and make an end run around you. That’s what disruption means.”

Holman said any large, successful institution creates “an immune system” designed to suppress risk.

“That’s why we don’t fix anything. We just start from scratch and build a parallel business, a parallel industry, that has a bunch of advantages over what’s been going on,” he said.

“That’s how we do it. It’s happening everywhere in the world,” Holman added.

Technology and computing power mean that people increasingly don’t have to try and guess what will be successful. Once upon a time, Holman said, software was developed in 18-month cycles. Engineers created programs, released them, waited for feedback, and slowly worked on the next edition.

Now, a coder can create an app, release it before breakfast, get real-time feedback, update it at lunch, get more feedback and update it again at dinner. While this is affecting less tangible things like software and media, computer-controlled manufacturing and 3-D printing mean this way of designing and creating products is slowly seeping into manufacturing.

And that means increasingly no one has to try and guess a year or two in advance what people will want.

“Rapid iteration makes us powerful,” he said. “We don’t have to to be so smart. You’ve gotta be smart to guess a year in advance.”

What this means for agriculture is unclear, though Holman said he was impressed at how farmers in the U.S. have embraced technology.

“As a technologist, I’m often bummed I don’t get to work in agriculture because you guys get cool robots,” he said. “The world needs us figuring out how you make more and better potatoes and get them to China.”

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