Are you leaving academia to start working on so-called “real world” problems? If so, you’re probably all too familiar with this turn of phrase. Well, I was in the same boat 4 years ago, and in this post, I’d like to share with you my views on what we should call real world problems, and what they actually are in industry.
What is the “real world”?
To start with, let me find my astrophysics hat, dust it off a bit and put it on for the first time in a while. I need to make a little digression about the real world… ahem.
Our planet is nothing but a ridiculously tiny dot in the immensity of realness.
The Universe is, to say the least, quite big, and we can only see a fraction of it: The Observable Universe. This alone has a diameter of over 90 billion light years. Anything outside of it is also real, but we will never be able to see it.
Inside the Observable Universe, only about 5% of its content is “normal stuff”, like galaxies, stars, planets and so on. Within that 5%, there are at least 100 billion galaxies, of which our very own Milky Way is just one of them. And within the Milky Way, there are at least 100 billion stars, of which our very own Sun is just one of them. Orbiting around the Sun, there are 8 planets, which is finally a number that we can count on our fingers! (But don’t forget that there are millions of other smaller objects in the Solar System that don’t make it into the “planet” category, including our lonely moon and the ugly duck, Pluto).
So, if we ever get the chance to ask an alien what the real world is, the answer will almost certainly not be “Earth”. Our planet is, after all, nothing but a ridiculously tiny dot in the immensity of realness.
However, we being mere humans may say that by real world we obviously mean Earth, which is fair enough. So we have now selected a particular piece of space (again, minuscule, but pretty important to its residents at least). But during the whole history of planet Earth, what fraction of it starts counting as the real world?
When did the world become “real”?
Earth formed over 4 billion years ago. At that time Earth already faced a bunch of big problems, like the frequent impact of massive meteorites. But I guess they also don’t count as real world problems nowadays. Should we instead start counting at the beginning of life, over 3 billion years ago? Or when the first homo sapiens was born, half a billion years ago? In year zero (if you are religious)? At the beginning of the industrial revolution…?
Maybe we should start counting from the day we were born. If you are reading these lines, you are probably at least 20 years old. Are the problems industry faced 20 years ago real world problems today?
Let’s cut to the chase. In the fast-paced technological world we live in, real world problems are those which are happening on Earth (a tiny fraction of the realm of space) around the present time (a tiny fraction of the realm of time). Got it? Good, now I can take off my astrophysicist hat and put it back on the shelf next to my paleontologist scarf.
What should we call “real world” problems?
Wars, diseases, poverty, natural catastrophes, climate change, global pandemics… These are all serious problems happening on Earth today, most of which we are technologically capable of solving, or at least alleviating. Some of these problems are even threatening our very presence on Earth. The Future of Life Institute outlines 4 main sources of existential risk: Nuclear war, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and climate change. All of which are, in fact, direct consequences of our industrial development.
So if we told our alien friend about Earth and the wonders of human knowledge, it would probably expect most of our collective human effort to be invested in solving these existential problems. Because they are the real world problems, right?
Or are they?
What “real world” problems are in industry
Don’t be so naive! Existential problems are not the kind of problems industry usually focuses on at all! Churning clients, decreasing revenue, low SEO… These are the so called real world problems in industry. I’m really sorry to be the one to break it to you.
Real world problems in industry are basically any possible cause of money loss.
Don’t get me wrong, of course there are companies that attempt to tackle true real world problems, but the vast majority of them don’t. When working in a company, your main goal is to generate money for the company. Therefore, real world problems in industry are basically any possible cause of money loss. Does that disappoint you? It was certainly a bit of a blow for me, when I started looking for my first industry job. However:
- Is academic work any better at tackling real world problems?
- Is it such a bad thing to “work for money”?
Both of these questions are worthy of their own posts (which I look forward to sharing with you soon).
There is a common prejudice that people in academia don’t work on real world problems, unlike those in industry. However, as we’ve seen, there is a big divide between genuine real world problems (e.g. climate change), and what industry treats as real world problems (e.g. poor SEO). In fact, most industry jobs do not aim at tackling any of the genuine ones (and for now we’ve left it as an open question whether or not academic jobs do).
Now, we find ourselves at a crossroads, where technology has not only enabled the biggest achievements of human kind, but also triggered the main risks of our extinction. Incidentally, it is also our only ally to solve them. And technological development has always been driven by a balance between academia and industry.
So, we can conclude that to solve real world problems, we need both industry and academia working side by side. We can see this clearly in the combined efforts of academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. I hope that very soon we can come out of this pandemic and realise that there are other urgent, real world problems to be tackled together.
To solve real world problems, we need both industry and academia working side by side.
Regardless, whatever the problem you end up working on in your career, be it forecasting market trends or reducing social inequality, don’t worry, for these problems are nothing but an insignificant blip in the universe. (Woops! It seems my astrophysics hat has randomly fallen off the shelf onto my head again!)