The Real Sci-Fi Challenge: Because Our Best Ideas Are Feeble

Here’s a big, bold challenge. Let’s take the best scifi ideas out into the real world, combine them with code and see if that doesn’t yield plausible solutions for today’s boldest challenges.

I’m calling this the Real Sci-Fi Challenge

With good reason. As bloggers and scifi writers our words can remain in imaginary universes and leave the world woefully unchanged so we need to work on implementation.

And for developers, the criticism is no less: we spend a lot of computing power computing useless trivial garbage and our ideas often lack breadth and imagination to engage real problems.

The Two Worlds Must Finally Collide

Hopefully, we can all begin to target bigger problems and begin to solve big thorny problems and address social ills in the process.

Are you ready to take on the challenge? Because our best ideas are feeble.

Today’s tech companies get a bad rap for not doing enough to solve big problems. I tend to agree.

As a sci-fi writer when I’m not coding, solving big problems is how we create exciting societies of the future where today’s problems have all been solved, and newer, more challenging problems are always on the horizon.

Our real-world work, sadly, tends to be a lot less exciting. I mean, a user-dashboard, another CRUD app, a game on an iPhone?

I’m already somewhat ahead in this challenge, but you should seriously consider taking it on and coming up with some ideas of your own to improve things as they are.

I already came up with a few unusual ideas, spanning everything from biohacking to raise our productivity levels to some solutions for water problems in emerging markets.

I came across Jennifer Dewalt’s blog, who was building webapps for a good 180 days, 180 web apps in total. I don’t know where you come from, but where I’m from, that’s a lot of code!

Later, I read a post on that described his ambitious goal of building 12 startups in 12 months, mostly focused on solutions for digital nomads.

This is not so different from National Novel Writing Month.

So if you a writer, I invite you to this challenge as well.

But now let’s get those ideas off the pages of our sci-fi works and into the real world.

Thus, given my whole intention to move the needle a bit on some of these big problems we have in Africa and the emerging world, I mean, who wouldn’t want…

On the internet people can be anonymous and names get blurred. This is a real problem for authors and entrepreneurs because we are trying to build a brand, and still have something of a private life! Many of my friends call me Ten in real life, and I’m publishing some sci-fi novels by my real name: Tendai Mutunhire. Anyhow, you can call me “Tomahawk”, that’s my scifi-cowboy coder nickname, that way if you can’t find my “About” page and remember my real name, you don’t start calling me “Scifi Challenge guy” haha.

So I’m taking on the challenge. Along with crafting my scifi novels in the Laudian Chronicles series, I’m beginning work on the first few startup ideas from the future, to sort of, bring some of that back here.

Technology can help accelerate the rate at which we solve problems, mitigate some of the problems we already have, and solve some of the massive inefficiencies in our markets and economies. Take, for instance, one of my ideas which is all about tapping into new levels of productivity in the daily lives of potentially millions of people by using these so-called “biohacks”, little optimizations based on the right organic biomaterial, compounds, supplements and dietary hacks to achieve peak productivity. In the far future, such biohacks are likely to be routine, widespread and customizable. If you are interested, read on!

Everything has to be about higher productivity now! If startups are gonna remain relevant, in the future, we need to start building systems that raise productivity, not reduce it. Snapchat, anyone? Nothing against it, but I live in Africa, and what I see all the time is the need for new solutions that can do something to raise productivity levels at a macro level. Easier said than done, so hopefully big thinkers from the scifi community and the coding community will emerge out of the woodwork with promising big new ideas.

We spend a lot of time on email, much of it quite irrelevant to us personally. There’s an obvious area of optimization, potentially applicable for millions of people. So that’s just an example of the scale of problems that I feel drawn to right now. It’s all boldly, perhaps foolishly, ambitious of course. I mean, replace email?! I don’t know, that’s why I’m launching it myself, partly it’s for the adventure, to see what happens. In a sense, the real world can be almost as exciting as the strange worlds we create in science fiction.


I need you to take on the challenge for yourself, or get involved in other ways. To make sure you get the updates via email, sign up for my occasional newsletter. I plan to send an update about once every two weeks or so. And leave comments on this blog so we can keep the discussion going. If you want to write a novel yourself, or build a world-changing startup, feel free to let me know so we can keep track and maybe make a bigger community around this.

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If you have comments or other things to say, I suggest commenting on the blog, I’ll review comments and stuff but will try to stay off Facebook and other channels.

Except of course, Elixir channels. Sorry, that was a silly programming joke 😉

Now I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from something like this.

On the writing front, I have a few cozy ideas I’m crafting now and I’ve started reading some inspiring fiction again after a long hiatus so the ideas sort of hit me on the head more often.

For code, this is a good excuse to deploy cutting edge tech, and hopefully create an enduring impact, and learn something in the process.

I came up with a small list of world-changing ideas I’d like to see happen, so this will be a lot of fun. I don’t know how long it will take to implement these 5 or so startup ideas but I expect it to be long and difficult, can’t wait!

But that’s the adventure!

Now to see what the future of computers might look like, let’s do a basic history lesson and identify some of the major movements in software over the last 50 years.

An outline could look like this. (Read this section, it looks boring, but it’s very important!)

  1. Back In The Day, Machines learn to solve hardware problems e.g. pass some current through a wire and warm some wires together, giant giant machines that cost millions of dollars!
  2. In the Second Stage of Computing Machines, computers now learn to operate on a more abstract level, learn to solve math problems. Using 1s and 0s. 1 + 1 = 10 (binary)   2 + 2 =  100, and so forth, now I can just drop into an iex terminal and run: 2 + 2 // 4

And I get the result, but of course it took us a while to get to that point. But finally, computers could solve math problems!

  1. Then computers and software advanced under Bill Gates to the point of learning to solve Business Problems! Yaay!!! Who’d have thought! How smart is that! Can you imagine what a major breakthrough the personal computing era was. Spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheeets baby! VisiCalc! PC, IBM, Macintosh. A computer on every desk, a PC in every home! Truly, that era must have been a lot more exciting for entrepreneurs than today’s dumbed down Facebook era. Happily I’d trade with one of those guys. But yeah, business problems, a major win!
  2. Then, the current epoch, which really started with the internet bust during the era, and truly coincided with the birth of the “brogrammer”. But note, computers were able to learn how to solve what I will call “personal problems and itches”. A whole lot of them, anything you can imagine for the “consumer individual”.

“I need to watch the game”, etc.

“What will my pets eat”, etc

“Where my music at!” Napster etc.

“I need to make friends” MySpace, Friendster

“I need to show my pictures!”  Flickr, Facebook, Instagram etc

“I need to back up my files”  Dropbox, Box, MegaUpload, Google Drive etc

  1. The future, an unknown challenge!

And #5 is still a blank.

Let’s try to see what might fill that blank over the next 10 years.

Hint: think some big hairy problem they show in the disaster section of the news!

In the Western World, a lot, if not most, people are already online. Very little growth there.

The major growth on the internet is now happening in places that do not often feature in the public conversation except when discussing what I alluded to above.

Little-known villages in India, small towns in China, places in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh. Urban centers and not-so-urban centers in all these places.

Mobile phones.

Social network users who have never touched a PC, and don’t need to!

But now we are entering, as I said, an epoch in which the internet’s users are people in unmapped rural areas and under-developed countries, and with a whole lot of new challenges that have nothing to do with posting pictures to Facebook and showing how cute their cats are!

In other words, we are now faced with the predominant issue of big socio-economic ills.

Let’s review the history of computers again and just recollect how well or how badly they did in each of the prior eras, 1 to 5.

i.Era 1. Sure, computers could solve moving current through a bunch of wires.

ii.They could even solve mathematical problems. 1 + 1 = 2.

iii.And business problems. I mean, Microsoft did that so well, you just need to look at the traditional domination of Microsoft on the PC to realize how well!

iv.Same thing for computers solving personal itches, like sharing and doing the stuff that’s all about me! Easy stuff for bits and bytes!

v.But what about the new age of socio-economic problems? These are intertwined, difficult to extricate, noisy, gory, messy, bloody problems. How about that, huh? When you tackle this type of problem, you impact, not individuals and their consuming happiness (which has been done in the prior stages and is important, within limits), but societies and the destination of a civilization.

Where are the limits vis-a-vis what software can help us accomplish today?

Can computers combat radical Islam and protect kids in Somalia?

Can computers deliver better education to young kids in Tanzania?

Can computers help bring jobs to jobless youths in Soweto, South Africa?

And can computers alleviate the flooding problem in the Philippines?

Now the previous rounds of problems look almost too easy, and a bit uninspiring, compared to this. Now you are getting the meat of thorny, big, hairy, scary, life-and-blood problems. And don’t let anybody fool you and tell you it’s easy to solve the big problems in the emerging world. No more “4 Hour Work-week” baby!

Will today’s programmers rise to the challenge?

Boy, I wish Sean Parker was here to see this, am sure he could at least cook something up to begin! A flourish of brilliance or something, to rally the troops!

Or, reaching back even earlier, if only R. M. Stallman could see these problems here! A long way away from Emacsen, but could use that sharp mind!

And what if we could inspire a young Bill Gates to write an operating system that helps deliver secure voting free from interference? Could Eric S. Raymond, Yukihiro Matsumoto or Linus Torvalds concoct a mod to return the global economy to growth again?


As programmers, bloggers, writers and whatever else we do, we need to start pushing ourselves towards solving these big era problems that are the rightful target of the next generation of computer programs.

Let the next Snap-whatever be a way to swipe and deliver love and happiness to a hungry kid in Syria. Or stop the war, or something.

Don’t worry if this appears daunting, it is! Some of our ideas will seem a bit frivolous before the sheer magnitude of the socio-economic challenges of the epoch.

And that’s a measure of the gravity and magnitude of the problems we now face.

And hopefully we can get programmers starting to think about the next billion internet users and the very real socio-economic problems that are a towering facet of their lives, and how our programs and software can meet them where they are as they emerge to join the internet.

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So now before I begin, I challenge you, to answer for yourself, yes or no:

Can computers solve socio-economic problems?

The way that they solved electronic circuits, math, business, personal web services, and social networking.

In the past, you could always place a bet on the side of the computer eventually figuring out and being able to solve the stated problem effectively, in a straightforward amount of time:


Beating humans at chess?

Backing up files and running nuclear systems?

Driving a car?

All easy-peasy problems for our computing tools.

But strife in the third world? Morally defunct governments that destroy societies? Social ills in the townships and villages? Disasters due to inadequate resources and urban planning?

Personally, I think it’s far-fetched.

Particularly because socio-economic problems play with a lot of institutional influence, and quite often, the character of the people that control the social playing field.

So, in a sense, they involve a huge degree of “human problems” and “plain human fallibility”, not so much “tech problems”.

An astute observer will say “There’s no reason why talented hackers of the future cannot bring down evil governments”. We are still to see this really play out in modern times, and the history books will record it for future generations of hackers if, when it happens, but what about constructive type problems? Delivering healthcare to underserved villages? Achieving a redistribution of state oil revenues towards alleviating food shortages in the general populace, instead of the monarchy or dictator’s party lifestyle in the islands, and the like?

Much less dealing with drought preparedness and evacuations when earthquakes and disasters occur in marginalized areas?

Anyone who has sized up computers long enough and considered the possibilities will tell you these are tough things to write algorithms for.

Computers can’t.

But computers and software, utilized right, I think it fair to say, will be a big help to the social workers, activists, missionaries, writers, bloggers, and humanitarians who want to make a genuine difference.

And if programmers want to remain relevant with their little apps and gizmodos, they better start making the stuff that enables these people to do a better job to address the big problems we must solve in the immediate future.  

So this is the challenge I throw down to every programmer and thinker today. Before you deploy your next CRUD app, think about the unspoken billions around the world who have no lights.


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