nancylebov (nancylebov) wrote,

The Unknown Unknowns

Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable)on what we can't predict.
This tells us that there is "no typical" failure and "no typical" success. You may be able to predict the occurrence of a war, but you will not be able to gauge its effect! Conditional on a war killing more than 5 million people, it should kill around 10 (or more). Conditional on it killing more than 500 million, it would kill a billion (or more, we don't know). You may correctly predict a skilled person getting "rich", but he can make a million, ten million, a billion, ten billion—there is no typical number. We have data, for instance, for predictions of drug sales, conditional on getting things right. Sales estimates are totally uncorrelated to actual sales—some drugs that were correctly predicted to be successful had their sales underestimated by up to 22 times!

The short version is that rare events make a huge difference, but are so uncommon that we can't make remotely sensible predictions about their size.

And for fans of A Fire Upon the Deep....

Indeed some systems tend to optimize—therefore become more fragile. Electricity grids for example optimize to the point of not coping with unexpected surges—Albert-Lazlo Barabasi warned us of the possibility of a NYC blackout like the one we had in August 2003. Quite prophetic, the fellow. Yet energy supply kept getting more and more efficient since. Commodity prices can double on a short burst in demand (oil, copper, wheat) —we no longer have any slack. Almost everyone who talks about "flat earth" does not realize that it is overoptimized to the point of maximal vulnerability.

Link thanks to Geek Press.
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