Zeno's Paradox and Why Modern Technology is Rubbish

Amazon Alexa is losing billions of dollars.

Self Driving Cars are losing billions of dollars.

The Metaverse is losing billions of dollars.

Are we about to witness the biggest crash in technological progress?

I'm particularly fond of the Rule of Credibility which states:

The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.

How true is that! If you've worked on any project, you know how easy it is to get most of the way there. And how difficult it is to get all of the way there.

If you remember your classics, you'll be acquainted with one of Zeno's paradoxes - the Dichotomy. Briefly stated, in order to reach a goal, you have to first get halfway there. In order to get halfway there, you must first get a quarter of the way there. To get to a quarter, you need to get to an eighth. And so on ad infinitum. Thus, it is logically impossible to reach your destination.

I kinda feel like that with some of today's tech products.

It's relatively simple to get a microphone that understands 90% of what you say. But to get to the last 10% means making ever-smaller incremental improvements until, years later, it's still not really worth using.

We've had semi-autonomous vehicles for years. But they're still stuck in that last 90% trap. Manufacturers can keep throwing children in front of them to see if the cars know to brake - but the reliability is still suspect.

VR has been going since the 1960s. Meta have successfully strapped an Android phone to a pair of lenses and called it the Metaverse. That's 90% of the way there!

There's an old joke about Zeno's paradox:

A university organised a dance for its students. All the men were to line up on one wall of a dance hall, and an equal number of women were to line up on the opposite wall1. The men were told to walk towards the women at a pace of a half the distance separating them every minute.

The mathematicians started weeping - saying that they would never get to meet.

The physicists looked glum - knowing they would only get to meet when time equals infinity.

The engineering students broke into a smile - because within a few minutes they would be close enough for all practical purposes.

And it feels like that's where we are today. Alexa is mostly practical - but not as good as a human butler. Self-driving cars are mostly practical - as long as you're in an area where they've been adequately trained. The Metaverse mostly works - but no one really cares.

There's a distinction between working, working well enough, and working well.

But it gets exponentially harder with each step.

  1. Feel free to substitute with something a little less heteronormative. 

4 thoughts on “Zeno's Paradox and Why Modern Technology is Rubbish

  1. DinoNerd says:

    I see a need to distinguish between technology and business. Your examples seem to me to be about attempts to make money. Some are loss leaders. Some are non-tech MBA types believing the hype of their peers, and attempting the impossible, while (some) technical types happily take their money to work on products they don't believe can be made sufficiently useful for practical purposes.

    Sometimes the last laugh is with the non-technical. I recall Reagan's "Star Wars", properly known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The consensus among techies at the time was that while it amounted to full employment for software engineers as long as the project existed, the goals were unattainable. And indeed, we still can't shield large land areas from ICBMs in any reliable way. But the competition is commonly credited with causing the breakup of the Soviet Union, via bankruptcy, which did in fact reduce (somewhat, and for a time) the risk of the US being attacked using nuclear armed ICBMs.

    It's been flamingly obvious from where I sit, for some decades, that unless the specialists know things I've never heard about, all three of your examples are somewhat more difficult to implement, as commonly described, than Reagan's SDI.

    A 'bot armed with voice recognition can be used as a filter on a phone system, directing some calls to the right places, and losing others entirely - but only because the top managers of the business imposing the 'bot don't care that calls are being lost. They are happy to receive (on the far side of the 'bot) fewer complaints, help requests, etc. etc. They probably need to not be caught admitting that this is their intent, but other than that there's no down side. (It surely doesn't matter to executives that the human customer support people have to deal with customers made angrier by the 'bot than they otherwise would be.) Whereas Alexa needs to be used voluntarily by people who have other alternatives - which means that except for those who love playing with tech toys, it has to work reliably for their purposes, and refrain from creating significant problems.

    There's a different problem causing the 80/20 rule (90/10 in your text). Much of that problem is addressable by ordinary engineering techniques. You'll still tend to have something demo-able, and looking almost done to the technically naive, well before the product is finished - and your managers may well try to ship it in that condition, assigning the team to other work rather than letting them finish the job. But the only real commonality between the two phenomena are the non-technical decision makers.

  2. Michael Lorrey says:

    WHICH Metaverse are you talking about, in particular? I know several. Some are garbage (META) while others work pretty well (Open Simulator), but none are 100% successful because they are led by the wrong people, and motivated by the wrong goals.

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