Musk-ian Callings

The following quote has always resonated with me:

Going from PayPal, I thought: ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘What’s the best way to make money?’ – Elon Musk

How liberating and uplifting: dream as large as you can, unencumbered by your own limitations or financial gain, and then do what it takes to get there. This got me thinking – if Semantics3 is my PayPal, i.e., exciting business aimed at solving market needs, what would my SpaceX or Tesla, i.e., future projects aimed at shaping humanity, be? Two candidates that fit the bill:

Smart Garbage

Coffee cups, plastic bottles, food containers – you simply can’t live an urban life without generating a bag of trash each week. Americans discard 800kgs of trash per person each year. Most of this trash ends up in the ocean, in landfills or is incinerated. This isn’t sustainable existence. There is only so much land that we can fill and waters we can clog before we run out of space. We are still in the first century post industralization, which is why we haven’t yet been overwhelmed by the issue, but it is unlikely that we can maintain status quo in the long run without a major change.

How does one solve this problem? Recycling, levies on wastage, policing and appeals to benevolence can only take us so far. To succeed, habits have to be fundamentally altered; since societies are made up of largely economically rational actors, the answer lies in alternative products that can compete in the free market on cost and convenience. Think smart packaging and containers, which auto-clean themselves and compact at the press of a button, fostering reusability. And retail shops which pack your order on-demand, eliminating the need for packaging for each individual item in your basket.

Market-Driven Free Universal Education

Equality in education is an ideal we can aspire to now, more realistically than anytime else in human existence. High quality public education or subsidized private education are stabs at this, but even if achieved, they do seem to be artificially manufactured states, especially in a world that is largely driven by the free market. Seems like such equilibriums could collapse when economies tank or governments change. Moreover, policy-driven methods are unlikely to deliver free and equal education worldwide during my lifetime, and we simply can’t wait that long.

What if the cost of education dropped to $0? And if this free education were the best possible education available, could the strong link between economic background and career prospects be broken? Could this in turn transform us into a more perfect meritocratic society?

E-education efforts of today are certainly a step in this direction, but they are still used, and likely to be used in the near future, to supplement rather than supplant conventional options. As a result, even in cases when the poor have unfettered access to the internet, the rich still have access to better education.

Here’s one approach that I find appealing: currently, while in education mode (school & college), we are consumers and hence pay into the system, while in work mode (rest of our lives until retirement), we are contributors and hence extract remuneration from the system. What if these two phases were fluid, effectively achieving the goal of bringing the “cost of education” to zero? A rudimentary example of how this may happen – tests presented to children could be designed to have implicit problems which, when solved, could help corporations complete operations that would otherwise have been sourced to MechanicalTurk at higher costs. This could in turn help the students earn money and offset the cost of their education. Alternative business models can work wonders. Take Google search for instance – it is free, treats all users equally, and there isn’t a better version of the search engine available to the rich, because that’s simply not where the money lies!

In sum, this is the future of humanity I aspire to: a world in which human existence is sustainable, and all members of our species have equal opportunity to education and the fruits of our progress.

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