Transhumanists are into improvements, and many talk about specific problems, for instance Nick Bostrom. However, Bostrom’s problem statements have been criticized for not necessarily being problems, and I think largely this is why one must consider the problem definition (see step #2 below).
Sometimes people talk about their “solutions” for problems, for instance this one in H+ Magazine. But in many cases they are actually talking about their ideas of how to solve a problem, or making science-fictional predictions. So if you surf the web, you will find a lot of good ideas about possibly important problems—but a lot of what you find will be undefined (or not very well defined) problem ideas and solutions.
These proposed solutions often do not attempt to find root causes or assume the wrong root cause. And finding a realistic complete plan for solving a problem is rare.
8D (Eight Disciplines) is a process used in various industries for problem solving and process improvement. The 8D steps described below could be very useful for transhumanists, not just for talking about problems but for actually implementing solutions in real life.
Transhuman concerns are complex not just technologically, but also socioculturally. Some problems are more than just “a” problem—they are a dynamic system of problems and the process for problem solving itself is not enough. There has to be management, goals, etc., most of which is outside the scope of this article. But first one should know how deal with a single problem before scaling up, and 8D is a process that can be used on a huge variety of complex problems.
Here are the eight steps of 8D:
- Assemble the team
- Define the problem
- Contain the problem
- Root cause analysis
- Choose the permanent solution
- Implement the solution and verify it
- Prevent recurrence
- Congratulate the team
More detailed descriptions:
1. Assemble the Team
With an initial, rough concept of the problem, a team should be assembled to continue the 8D steps. The team will make an initial problem statement without presupposing a solution. They should attempt to define the “gap” (or error)—the big difference between the current problematic situation and the potential fixed situation. The team members should all be interested in closing this gap.
The team must have a leader; this leader makes agendas, synchronizes actions and communications, resolves conflicts, etc. In a company, the team should also have a “sponsor”, who is like a coach from upper management. The rest of the team is assembled as appropriate; this will vary depending on the problem, but some general rules for a candidate can be:
- Has a unique point of view.
- Logistically able to coordinate with the rest of the team.
- Is not committed to preconceived notions of “the answer.”
- Can actually accomplish change that they might be responsible for.
The size of an 8D team (at least in companies) is typically 5 to 7 people.
The team should be justified. This matters most within an organization that is paying for the team, however even a group of transhumanists out in the wilds of cyberspace will have to defend themselves when people ask, “Why should we care?”
2. Define the Problem
Let’s say somebody throws my robot out of an airplane, and it immediately falls to the ground and breaks into several pieces. This customer then informs me that this robot has a major problem when flying after being dropped from a plane and that I should improve the flying software to fix it.
Here is the mistake: The problem has not been properly defined. The robot is a ground robot and was not intended to fly or be dropped out of a plane. The real problem is that a customer has been misinformed as to the purpose and use of the product.
When thinking about how to improve humanity, or even how to merely improve a gadget, you should consider: Have you made an assumption about the issue that might be obscuring the true problem? Did the problem emerge from a process that was working fine before? What processes will be impacted? If this is an improvement, can it be measured, and what is the expected goal?
The team should attempt to grok the issues and their magnitude. Ideally, they will be informed with data, not just opinions.
Just as with medical diagnosis, the symptoms alone are probably not enough input. There are various ways to collect more data, and which methods you use depends on the nature of the problem. For example, one method is the 5 W’s and 2 H’s:
- Who is affected?
- What is happening?
- When does it occur?
- Where does it happen?
- Why is it happening (initial understanding)?
- How is it happening?
- How many are affected?
For humanity-affecting problems, I think it’s very important to define what the context of the problem is.
3. Contain the Problem
Some problems are urgent, and a stopgap must be put in place while the problem is being analyzed. This is particularly relevant for problems such as product defects which affect customers.
Some brainstorming questions are:
- Can anything be done to mitigate the negative impact (if any) that is happening?
- Who would have to be involved with that mitigation?
- How will the team know that the containment action worked?
Before deploying an interim expedient, the team should have asked and answered these questions (they essentially define the containment action):
- Who will do it?
- What is the task?
- When will it be accomplished?
A canonical example: You have a leaky roof (the problem). The containment action is to put a pail underneath the hole to capture the leaking water. This is a temporary fix until the roof is properly repaired, and mitigates damage to the floor.
Don’t let the bucket of water example fool you—containment can be massive, e.g. corporate bailouts. Of course, the team must choose carefully: Is the cost of containment worth it?
4. Root Cause Analysis
Whenever you think you have an answer to a problem, as yourself: Have you gone deep enough? Or is there another layer below? If you implementt a fix, will the problem grow back?
Generally in the real world events are causal. The point of root cause analysis is to trace the causes all the way back for your problem. If you don’t find the origin of the causes, then the problem will probably rear its ugly head again.
Root cause analysis is one of the most overlooked, yet important, steps of problem solving. Even engineers often lose their way when solving a problem and jump right into a fix which later on turned out to be a red herring.
Typically, driving to root cause follows one of these two routes:
- Start with data; develop theories from that data.
- Start with a theory; search for data to support or refute it.
Either way, team members must always remember keep in mind that correlation is not necessarily causation.
One tool to use is the 5 Why’s, in which you move down the “ladder of abstraction” by continually asking: “why?” Start with a cause and ask why this cause is responsible for the gap (or error). Then ask again until you’ve bottomed out with something that may be a true root cause.
There are many other general purpose methods and tools to assist in this stage; I will list some of them here, but please look them up for detailed explanations:
- Brainstorming: Generate as many ideas as possible, and elaborate on the best ideas.
- Process flow analysis: Flowchart a process; attempt to narrow down what element in the flow chart is causing the problem.
- Fishikawa: Use a Fishikawa (aka Cause and Effect) diagram to try narrowing down the cause(s).
- Pareto analysis: Generate a Pareto chart, which may indicate which cause (of many) should be fixed first.
- Data analysis: Use trend charts, scatter plots, etc. to assist in finding correlations and trends.
And that is just the beginning—a problem may need a specific new experiment or data collection method devised.
Ideally you would have a single root cause, but that is not always the case.
The team should also come up with various correction actions that solve the root cause, to be selected and refined in the next step.
5. Choose the Permanent Solution
The solution must be one or more corrective actions that solve the cause(s) of the problem. Corrective action selection is additionally guided by criteria such as time constraints, money constraints, efficiency, etc.
This is a great time to simulate/test the solution, if possible. There might be unaccounted for side effects either in the system you fixed or in related systems. This is especially true for some of the major issues that transhumanists wish to tackle.
You must verify that the corrective action(s) will in fact fix the root cause and not cause bad side effects.
6. Implement the Solution and Verify It
This is the stage when the team actually sets into motion the correction action(s). But doing it isn’t enough—the team also has to check to see if the solution is really working.
For some issues the verification is clean-cut. Some corrective actions have to be evaluated with effectiveness, for instance some benchmark. Depending on the time scale of the corrective action, the team might need to add various monitors and/or controls to continually make sure the root cause is squashed.
7. Prevent Recurrence
It’s possible that a process will revert back to its old ways after the problem has been solved, resulting in the same type of problem happening again. So the team should provide the organization or environment with improvements to processes, procedures, practices, etc. so that this type of problem does not resurface.
8. Congratulate the Team
Party time! The team should share and publicize the knowledge gained from the process as it will help future efforts and teams.