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making computers better

Adam Wiggins // Oct 2020

I was eight years old when I saw my first computer and it took my breath away with possibility. I saw a limitless canvas for creation and an infinitely-malleable medium for self-expression.

That childhood obsession transformed into an adult devotion to understanding how computers can be best put into service for human needs.

In this article series I’ll walk through important, difficult problems in computing that don’t have enough attention or funding from the tech industry. These are problems I’ve dedicated my career to working on, and I hope you might feel inspired to work on them as well.

why all this is important

“Software is eating the world” is Marc Andreesen’s famous war cry, but I prefer Cory Doctrow’s less aggressive and more poetic phrasing: we all live in a “computer-embroidered reality.”

Computers are everywhere. They run all our financial transactions, intermediate our interpersonal communication, they are part of everything from farm equipment to fine art. Cars are increasingly computers with wheels. Humans have no hands-on control of takeoff and landing of our most advanced spacefaring rockets. A tiny computer runs the medical device that keeps millions of people’s hearts beating moment to moment.

room-sized computer from the 1960s

TELEFUNKEN TR4 computer system (1962) in the German Technology Museum.

And I suspect that we’re far from peak computing. It’s hard to say while it’s still unfolding, but I find it plausible that the Information Age will be a species-level shift on par with the Industrial Revolution.

How computers work now and how they might work in the future is thus a high-impact question. That’s why I’ve devoted my career to working on making computing better.

What do I mean by “better”?

The economic and intellectual horsepower in Silicon Valley and the wider tech world seems to be pointed away from these goals. For example: algorithms designed to maximize watch time, the social media outrage machine, loot boxes and other psuedo-gambling, Skinner-box smartphone notifications.

We’re still figuring out what ubiquitous globally-connected computing can do. The precedent we set now may have a huge impact 50 or 100 years down the line.

What follows are six areas where I am investing my career and financial capital to make computers better. I share them to strengthen my own resolve, but also in hopes that you and others might join me in this spiritual quest.