Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Do we use Technology before its perfected? Should we?

During Hurricane Irene I lost power for about 18 hours. I was actually pleased how short this was. PEPCO (my power company) did not tell us when power would be restored at any point. Why? Possibly because of this story that happened a few years ago.

On July 25, 2009 there was a power outage. I called PEPCO and was told
Your power will be restored by Sept 17 7:00AM.
I was glad to hear that since Sept 17 I was having company over at 7:00PM so I would have 12 hours to clean up and make dinner. PEPCO later had a spokesman that explained why they claimed it would take about 2 months to get my power back.. What they said (in our terms) is that they have a formula for how long it will take based on how many people lost power. The formula is (I am guessing) something like
Number of days = (number of people out of power)/1000.
This was a massive power outage- around 300,000 lost power. For those values the formula (we hope) is not correct. Power was restored to the entire region in about 5 days.

We are still learning how to automate things and sometimes we get absurd results. In a prior post I noted that a phone number gave automated info that was 2 years out of date. I've called airports at 2:00PM to find out when my lost luggage would be returned and found out that it will returned by 11:00AM (the same day three hours earlier).

I AM NOT complaining about PEPCO (I got my power back), The Airport (I got my luggage), or The Hallmark Channel (I missed a TV show I wanted to watch- not important). I AM raising an issue: Do we use technology before its perfected? Sometimes YES. Is this a bad thing? Is this a better way to beta-test things? Not sure- some errors only come up in extreme cases that were not thought about in the testing phase. The particulars of my examples are not important- is this a general problem? All of my examples are American- how is it in other countries?


  1. In the EU the Precautionary Principle is law. This puts the burden of proof of the safety of immature technology onto the company that produces the product, if there is doubt and no scientific consensus on its safety.

  2. If you're wording really is what they said---"by Sept 17"---then PEPCO wasn't wrong. They gave you an upper bound. They just came in well under it.

    Maybe this is really just another point against worst-case analyis? :)

  3. I like that paragraph on the inconsistency inherent in applying the precautionary principle: the precautionary principle may preclude its own application. :-)

  4. Hmmmm … a parallel mathematical question is, do we use definitions before they are perfected? To which Felix Klein's celebrated answer is:
    "Everyone knows what a curve is, until he has studied enough mathematics to become confused through the countless number of possible exceptions."
    Nowadays everyone knows what an algorithm in P is … everyone knows what a simulation is … everyone knows what an NP witness is …

    The point being that considerable trial-and-error attends both processes. In which case, we might as well get started. :)

  5. Your problems seem to be caused by inept users, not technology itself. Alas, we will never get rid of users.

  6. Raphael, would we even want to get rid of inept users?

    In inept users, great businessmen and engineers have always perceived opportunities for creating "insanely great products and technologies" (Steve Jobs).

    Similarly, in inept definitions/axioms, great mathematicians have always perceived opportunities for creating "insanely great theorems and algorithms".

    It's true though, that these wonderful creative opportunities (Dick Lipton calls them "flaming arrows") are natural and even obvious to everyone … but only in retrospect.

  7. While I was following Hurricane Irene, I happened to notice the forecast (which I usually ignore). On Sunday, AccuWeather predicted for Boston a high of 88, and a low of -15.

    Since we've been telling trying to predict temperatures for a very long time (much longer than we've been trying to predict when the electricity would return), I think the lesson here is:
    If you wait until something is perfect to use it, you'll never have the chance.

  8. I think we should wait until technologies are perfect before we use them.

  9. Don't we use most things before they are perfected? Elevators, cars, airplanes, the Constitution, democracy, parenting, etc.

  10. hi bill/lance Im a big fan. but havent written before. plz excuse using the comment here on this post for general feedback.
    bill-- its cool you're doing another P=?NP poll, I read about it a few posts bank. a suggestion-- an interesting poll would be a list of everyone's favorite way that P=?NP might be solved. or was that officially part of the poll?

    I have a question thats been poking at me lately. actually many questions. would like to get an extended dialog going maybe. anyway my initial question is the following.

    suppose it is proven there is a language L that is not in P time but is in PSPACE. this proves P!=PSPACE a still-open problem. but does it prove anything about P=?NP? what additional information about L is needed? I am particularly interested in weaker conditions on L other than the obvious-- whether it is NP complete etc.

  11. "But will it fly, Wilbur?"

    It is worth noting that a group of scientists tried to get a legal injunction to prevent the new super-collider in Switzerland from becoming operational. They were afraid that it might inadvertently create a mini black hole or something that would destroy the world.

    Obviously, that didn't happen - yet.