@dredmorbius How big?

The Universe may have enough matter for a Big Crunch, or too little causing a Heat Death. Either end is unpleasant. Stable state seems unlikely.

Earth is temporarily infected with too many Humans. Self-correcting problem, and ultimately the Sun will burn them off, but they might escape and spread, harming more biospheres. Or Humans/post-Human AIs could stop being dicks, which is fine, too.

I'm not starving, but I'm peckish.

@mdhughes That's an interesting one, though I'd suggest it's a bit out of scope for most people.

I'd suggest a problem is one that should or could be addressed (studied, resolved, mitigated, remedied, prepared for) within, say, some current planning cycle: year, decade, generation, lifetime.

@dredmorbius So you don't want "big problems" at all, but medium, manageable ones. The Human problem is barely in that scope; I put species survival to 2100 at ~20% chance on optimistic estimates. So either work on the environment, Humans being stupid, or AI. I sorta do the second, but I'm aware it's a minor effort.

Lunch was an entirely solvable problem and I made a passable sandwich and had a mango tea with high carbon footprint.


@mdhughes So, you're addressing the semantics and ontology of just what "big problems" are, which is to say, what is a _problem_?

I frequently turn to etymology as a guide. Mind, not a _definition_, but as a hint as to what understanding has been. And we find:

a difficult question proposed for solution, from Greek problema "a task, that which is proposed, a question;" ultimately proballein "propose," pro "forward" (PIE root *per- (1) "forward") + ballein "to throw"


@mdhughes The question of heat death of the universe ultimately isn't _solvable_ (we can't avoid that), though forming a proper _model_ of that does matter, somewhat.

I prefer to look at degrees of freedom within some bounded space or sphere of influence. Strongly guided by a definition from sailing:

The Art of ship handling involves the effective use of forces under control to overcome the effect of forces not under control.

-- Charles H. Cotter

That also defines my ontology.

@mdhughes If *all* the forces are not under control, then there is no problem, there is an inevitability.

If all of the forces *are* under control, there is no problem, there is only will.

If forces under control *cannot* overcome those not, again, what exists is an inevitability.

Where there *is* the option of influence *and* some scope of control, you have a Problem.

The next question is what "big" is.

Lunch is not a Big Problem.

A Big Problem is one that is _not_ readily tackled.

@mdhughes A Big Problem would tend to be one that:

1. Involves multiple parties. People, organisations, institutions, models, disciplines, countries, belief systems.

2. Involves major inputs or resources. Time, money, material, energy, understanding, coordination.

3. Has a large and probable consequence. This distinguishes from butterfly effects, which are large, but cannot be probabalistically addressed.

There should be some rough ordering of Big Problems based on these criteria.

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