How Do You Know When You Have A Solution For A Problem That Doesn’t Exist?


Thursday, 9.57pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts. – Bertrand Russell

The first fortune I wanted to make didn’t happen – and at the time I didn’t understand why. I had done everything I needed to do, what needed to be built was built but what I expected would happen didn’t – and I didn’t know why.

So, I went back to university and learned some economics for the first time – and those sparse lines of supply and demand and the terse text that explained the difference between a monopsony and a competitive market suddenly helped me understand why that business I was in didn’t make money and never would unless things changed fundamentally.

The last fortune I will make will come if I live for long enough. That’s because it’s based on a very simple principle – investing in the world economy and letting the power of compounding do its bit.

What is it about us as human beings that we dash for the new and exciting, hoping to make a fast buck and ignore the tried and trusted ways that are almost certain to get us what we want – perhaps more slowly, but quite probably more surely? For example, you’re probably still wondering if you should have bought bitcoin. If I had done I’d have lost money, not made it but that still doesn’t stop one wondering “What if?” And if you’re looking for regret – in the last year you should have invested in clean tech. Some of those companies are up 5-10x. Of course, they made very little progress for the ten years before that.

But I digress – the thing I was wondering about is whether you can tell if something is going to work or not – will there be a market, will it be successful, what are the chances of making it?

I learned today why one particular technology – 3D visualisation – may have a hard time making it, especially in the world of business. And it has to do with the biology of vision.

It turns out that visual information goes through different pathways in the brain depending on what we’re trying to do. If we want to perceive things – make out shapes and sizes and objects and designs – we follow one route. And if we want to look at our hands and guide them to do precise motions the information goes through a different pathway. This second pathway is where having two eyes comes in handy. Stereoscopic vision helps us grasp things, thread needles and remove thorns and ticks.

But we don’t need stereoscopic vision to make sense of the world around us. We can do that through other cues – objects that are further away are smaller, shadows give you hints about shape and perspective gives you an idea of an object’s relationship with you. Just looking at things from different angles, like you would through a camera gives you a sense of what’s going on. If it didn’t you wouldn’t watch a movie without feeling like something was missing. But have you ever really felt that way – like a film experience was missing some kind of three-dimensionality? The reason you don’t really think about it is that you don’t need the third dimension to be able to “get” what’s going on.

Now, in the mundane world of business – I saw a visual – a graphic representation – shown in a 3D form and my first reaction was “Cool, can I do that?” Just so you know, this was a mountain and there was a path curving around it with labels and little stick figures and so on. But now, having read this material, I’m starting to wonder whether that is really going to take off – if anything, the three dimensionality makes it more complex to see the information because you have to move around to see what’s on the other side. Which you wouldn’t have to do if the whole thing was on a flat sheet of paper. If you decided to start a business in 3D data visualisation – what are the chances that there is a market where this stuff is actually useful? Well, the biological argument would say that you need to find a place where it’s important to pick things up and use that ability to control where your hands go.

And it just so happens that there’s one business where that’s something people want – and it’s the video game industry where every game has more and more realistic immersive environments where your job mostly to shoot people and do active stuff with your imaginary limbs and stereoscopic vision and 3D seem perfectly suited for the job.

But, you don’t need two eyes to drive. I checked.

I started this post wondering if there was a way to avoid spending a huge amount of time and money working on something that doesn’t have a future. I think, unfortunately, biology has something else to tell us about this. The natural world is not perfectly efficient. It’s actually pretty much the opposite. We see huge waste everywhere. Why do fish have to lay millions of eggs if only a few make it, for example? It may just be that it’s quite hard to find that idea that’s guaranteed to succeed. What happens is that people have ideas and then the fittest survive – there’s a social and intellectual process of evolution that means some works are passed on from brain to brain and other works simple fade away and are forgotten.

Perhaps the wisest thing to do is not to try and carve a new path in the wilderness but to extend the path you’ve travelled on a little more, so that the person coming after you can travel a little further than you did – taking the hopes of humanity with them.


Karthik Suresh

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