Jason Pontin: Can technology solve our big problems?In today’s talk, Jason Pontin asks a bold question: Why hasn’t technological innovation brought solutions to the world’s biggest problems — curing cancer, feeding everyone on the planet, creating truly clean energy, etc. In this talk, Pontin hopes aloud that technology will help us with some of these seemingly-intractable issues , and gives insight into four criteria that must be met for a problem to have a technological solution.
Pontin’s talk runs just days after the death of Ann Wolpert, his longtime mentor. We asked Pontin to write a few words about her.
Ann Wolpert, the director of MIT’s libraries and my boss and mentor, died on October 1st, after a brief illness. Throughout her 17-year tenure as the Institute’s chief librarian, she wrestled with a big problem: how should research libraries respond to the opportunities and challenges of the Internet? She is an inspiration to anyone who wonders, “Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?” — the subject of my TED Talk given in Long Beach last March.
Research libraries have a special role in our culture: they are the repository of our common cultural heritage, and especially of the scientific and technology literature. Ann asked whether the public should have unrestricted online access to the scholarly journals that university libraries house. Until recently, most peer-reviewed journals were published by large, highly profitable media organizations such as the Nature Publishing Group; and even though the research they feature was paid for by tax-payers and written by scholars working at universities like MIT, their material could only be read by individuals and organizations able to pay hefty subscription costs. (Cell costs $253 a year for a US subscription; the Journal of Co-ordination Chemistry costs $11,367 a year.)
Publishers justified their prices as necessary to recover the costs of peer-review publication. The reputations of the leading journals created a sort-of “lock-in” for scholars. But most people felt there had to be a better, open, more digital way.
What was Ann’s solution? First, beginning in 2000, Ann worked with Hewlett-Packard to build DSpace, an open-source digital archive for research that has been adopted by more than 1,000 institutions worldwide. DSpace ensured that there should be a common, permanent platform for library material. Then, in 2009, she conceived the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy, where professors give the Institute permission to disseminate journal articles for open access through DSpace@MIT. In turn, those articles can be republished on open Web sites like the Public Library of Science or PLOS. It was the first policy of its kind in the United States, and has been imitated by other universities around the globe.
By the time of her death, her solution was generally accepted to be the likely future of research libraries. (Although there is still much we don’t know.) She achieved her ends through patience, guile, deep knowledge of the challenges and technical virtuosity, but most of all through a spirit of collaboration. After all, it wasn’t enough to conceive of the Open Access Policy: she had to convince MIT’s Academic Council to pass the proposal, and the faculty to accept the idea.
She was the chair of MIT Technology Review’s board of directors, and everything good we’ve done was achieved with her support and help. She was fair, intelligent, and possessing of that rarest of qualities: discernment. She could turn a pretty compliment when we were deserving of praise, but was otherwise precise and specific in her criticism. She always told me when I was about to make a mistake, and how I could avoid it. She had the slyest of wits. .I couldn’t have wished for a better partner, and I don’t know what I’ll do without her.