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Unsolved Problems in Technology / Computers

In 1900, the great mathematician David Hilbert presented twenty-three open problems in mathematics. A Google search for open problems in computing gives this Wikipedia article with problems like P = NP and existence of one-way functions. I’d like to list a few, more practical, open problems in computing, that I believe will start to get solved in the following years (most are being work upon for years, but I believe the rate of solving them is accelerating).

Here are my choice problems – I am sure I left many important problems out, and perhaps some of the ones I present are more solved than I know. Please, comment if you’re interested.

  • Search – Google has redefined the field in the last ten years, but I think it’s too early to call search a solved problems (otherwise startups like Delver wouldn’t get started :)). The bleeding edge seems to be in Social/Personal search.
  • Instant video & audio playback – play any video or audio clip, episode or movie. High quality. Free! We’re very close to the solution here. Youtube, bittorrent, Internet radios (I’ve tried,, Jango). We’re not there yet though, all of these still have problems in pricing, availability or quality.
  • Naive AI – the most undefined term in computer history. I’m not talking about Terminator-style AI (yet). What I want is solid, prevalent voice-recognition. Image and video recognition (auto-tagging on Facebook, for starters). Some system I could speak to and say “please find my next open slot on Tuesday in my calendar, invite Oren & Avishay for a design review, oh, and send them the presentation beforehand”. Something that has just enough smarts to automagically integrate all the other smart systems we already have today.
  • Organization. No need to backup your computer, or put everything into folders, or manually tag stuff. No need to remember passwords, logins, websites. Wait, did I upload that image to Flickr or Facebook? Do I have Anton’s contact from Facebook or Gmail? I think I the copy of the seminar I saved to my desktop is more recent than the one on my laptop… The login/password problem, at least, is nearing its solution – usage of OpenID is accelerating, and it is getting more comfrtable to use as well.
  • Availability. Sure, we’ve got iPhone 3g. But still costs 500-600$. And is suffering much criticism. I want a cheap, good endpoint to the worldnet (imaginary word I just invented to describe the combination of all the world’s networks – internet, phone, TV, …). I want one for my office, one for my bedroom, one above the kitchen table, one in the grocery store… You get my drift.
  • Power consumption. Why are laptop battery life measured in hours, not days or weeks?
  • Viruses and other malware. It’s not as prevalent as a few years ago (for me), but I still run across virus-infected files.
  • Universal data portability. Standards, standards, standards, starting from how to write web pages, to how to write software that doesn’t require root permissions to work, how to access address books and social networks. Lots of work in process here, not yet wildly adopted.
  • Information consumption. How to get really good personalized content without being blown away by the quantity or poor quality.
  • SPAM – I’m not sure this problem will go away, it might just get worse. Computers are getting better and better at pretending to be humans.
  • Planning – computers are excellent planners, right? So why can’t I use the computer to automatically plan a trip from Tel Aviv to Kiryat Bialik, where my parents live? I take the train to Kiryat Motskin, and a bus or taxi to Kiryat Bialik, but no single system (as of today, in Israel) is able to plan a complete route using both means of transportation. This bullet is deeply related (some would say included) in data portability, a few paragraphs above.


  1. Ofer Egozi:

    Bullet #2 (video/audio play) is, in reality, not at all a technological issue. It is an issue of ethics, culture and legal reform. In this case, technology is not the solution, rather it is the trigger for the “problem”, and to culture change. Lawrence Lessig describes this best, how inability to reform copyright law turns many of us into criminals, and his old but classic iconic presentation (flash here, transcript here) outlines a fascinating lesson in copyright history.

  2. ripper234:

    True, the situation is complex and involves multiple disciplines, perhaps more than technology. But, a solution that combines business interests and technology can be achieved – the aforementioned internet radios are proof. Combination of lowered distribution costs, micro payments, and possibly increased revenues from targeted ads can together turn into a large enough business force, which can in fact solve the ethical problem. If the generated revenue margins are high enough, artists can be compensated for their work while consumers profit, and the problem will be truly solved.

  3. Eli:

    Native AI: I’m not sure that solving this problem will take us to a place much different from Terminator AI. That’s to say, it’s much more difficult than it appears. Developing efficient and feasible techniques for NLP, for instance, will go through a framework that will make more general AI feasible – I think that in the core all AI runs into the same problems.

    Planning: this definitely exists in the US already. During my last USA visit, I’ve used Google Maps several times to successfully plan trips that involved walking, trains and subways. It also works great for planning road-trips. This hasn’t arrived to Israel yet, that’s all.

  4. ripper234:

    Naïve (not Native) AI – don’t you think it’s possible to develop “good enough” heuristics that don’t fully understand the sentance structure, but are able to extract enough meaning to be helpful to us? I see this as an essential first step, that can be done much before a fully fledged AI emerges.

    Planning – great to hear that route-planning is starting to happen (/ has happened) in the US. Do we have solutions for other non-trivial planning problems? I’m unsure what interesting examples of planning besides route-planning exist, but I think we can find a few.

  5. Boaz:

    Last bullet – is worth mentioning (though not a perfect solution)…

  6. Yuval:

    Planning – Tripit – – shows a nice planning system for international travel.