Can Any Problem Be Solved?

Bill Gates asks this question (specifically toward the problem of Malaria) in his TED conference talk from this week, but I’m interested in the question in general.

I like his optimism, and wish I shared it in general. He says that as an optimist, he believes any problem can be solved. But I wonder, given what?

  • …given enough information?
  • …given enough resources?
  • …given enough time?
  • …given enough effort?

What makes my optimism break down is examining those givens. It seems obvious that given enough information about a problem, one might be able to at least devise a solution for it. But that doesn’t work when we don’t even know what we don’t know. After all, the unknown unknowns are the big factor in the quest for the theory of everything, not to mention the known unknowns. Ok, so let’s assume we do have enough information to have devised a solution that we’d like to give a shot. The next need would be for the resources needed to enact the solution. This could be materials, people, or money (of course). What if you just can’t get them? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say you can. The next need is really effort. This is much harder to quantify, but I think it has a lot to do with will. Do people want the solution enough to work hard for it? Are they willing to work hard, even without a guarantee of success? Are they dedicated to the solution enough? Clearly, this can’t always be a given. Especially extrapolated over the next given- time (enough failure over time will cause many to give up). Do you have enough time? Nobody has all the time in the world, and sometimes there is a narrow window for success, whether that is due to competition, resources, schedules, or even lifespan.

It sounds bleak, but I think we go through these considerations often- even if on a small scale. We even do this when determining development project scope. We often ask whether we can or should build something that could be supplied by an application already created by someone else (would you ever try to rebuild gmail?). So, even on a small scale, it seems like not every problem can be solved, at least not in a contained environment.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 6, 2009,   In Essays

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