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Why Experts Can't Solve Big Problems

Naveen Jain is a serial entrepreneur whose work has spanned fields as diverse as web security, space exploration, and education and global development, so he knows a lot about problem solving. Here are some of his thoughts.

Naveen Jain made his money in the technology industry, first as the founder of search company InfoSpace, and then as the founder of web security firm Intelius, which has in the past been seriously scrutinized for its questionable marketing practices. But Jain’s interests span far beyond search and security: He is on the board of Singularity University (a Silicon Valley educational program that has spawned startups like ridesharing service Getaround); he co-chairs the education and global development initiative at the X Prize Foundation; and in his spare time co-founded Moon Express, a startup working on a lunar lander that will one day be able to mine the moon for resources. We sat down with Jain to talk about philanthropy, entrepreneurship, digital doctors, and more.

On solving big problems through philanthropy

How do we start to use many of the innovations currently in the pipeline to think about how to solve big problems? I think philanthropy and entrepreneurship are really one and the same, but people tend to do them differently. When you start a company, what’s the first thing you say? How big is the market. When you do philanthropy you don’t say that, you simply say, "Oh, I want to help this person and build a hospital in the village I grew up in." And you don’t say that’s only going to impact 100 people. I think people tend to do what I call "feel-good philanthropy" rather than a scalable, sustainable philanthropy. If you think from an innovation perspective, a lot of problems that look like infrastructure problems actually are knowledge gap problems, and if you can turn an infrastructure problem into a knowledge problem, then you can scale it. You have to make sure you can work infrastructure into knowledge, and then you have to make sure that anyone who touches your services has a way to make money.

On the problems with today’s education system

I grew up very poor, and there were times when we had no food to eat. But to us, that gave us an incentive to get us out of the cycle of poverty, and we felt that education was the only way to do that. So, you know, no social life and work hard and absolutely focus on education. I came to this country almost 30 years ago and started to think about why the education system is so broken. We blame everybody, but the fundamental problem is how we teach, not the teacher’s union, not the students, not the families, not because they’re poor. The problem is the same child can go and solve the most complex video game and struggle on basic math. The way we are teaching is not how the brain learns.

On an education X Prize

People learn by teaching. So what if you created an avatar, and instead of you taking a test, you have to teach an avatar, and the avatar takes the test? Let’s assume the avatar doesn’t do well. You don’t come back and say "Oh my God, I’m such a moron." You say, "Hmm, what did I do wrong? Let me go back and learn and teach it again." Now you have this avatar which is the personality that you want in a friend, that you’re connected to. Now you’re teaching and learning.

Why innovation comes from the unlikeliest corners

Having been involved with X Prize, as you can imagine the reason I got involved is because I like the idea of incentive prizes. I was going through this exercise of learning how the brain works [for the Education X Prize] and it made it so easy for me to understand why experts can never come up with a disruptive innovation. Experts can only give you incremental evolution. As I was reading these books on how pattern matching in the neocortex works, I learned that the more information you have and the more you’re an expert in a certain subject, the moment a new project comes in, the lowest level of neocortex starts to find a match—you think, "Oh, this looks very much like this other problem, and by the way you can just tweak here and you’ll have a solution." Whereas if you’ve never heard about a problem, [it has to] work with a higher level of neocortex.

So if somebody came up to me and asked how you clean oil in an oil spill, I’m thinking about it very differently from any expert because they know what they have done in the past. So we actually did that at X Prize. We had an oil cleanup prize for $1 million. BP spent $20 billion, and with this $1 million prize, the winner was five times better than what BP was using and 99% efficient. One of the finalists was a team that consists of a guy from a tattoo parlor, a dentist, and a mechanic.

How a Digital Doctor X Prize could change medicine

I’m working on something called Digital Doctor. If you look at the billion people around the world who have no access to health care, what do we do? Now that we have really cheap tablet devices—in India they’re selling them for about $30 to $35 now—you’re able to build some kind of expert [medical] system with a simple attachment of a device, a lab on a chip. Either a microfluidic device or a chip. I saw a couple of guys in Bangalore when I was there last time. They have a chip, and you can drop blood or spit on it and it’s able to diagnose the 20 most common diseases, whether you have dengue fever, malaria, or the flu. If you can solve 90% of all the common diseases in a village, and give this device to a village girl who is high-school educated, what if she becomes the village doctor using the tablet device? We say, look, you can rent it for a dollar a month and you can charge 10 cents per patient. So now she has a business, and she takes care of the device because that’s her business.