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  • Julian Talbot

Swans Of All Colors

In the 21st century, the era of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, we should expect to encounter ‘swans’ of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Even if not perhaps equally probable, the discovery of brown, brindle, red, and green swans is entirely possible and, in some sense, to be expected.

In a previous post, I spoke about why and how we should make Black Swans extinct. Note: Just to be clear, I'm talking about the risk model, not the bird. :-)

A quick refresher: Black Swan theory refers to a concept proposed by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his book Fooled by Randomness which he later expanded on in a subsequent book titled Black Swan.

It comes from the Old World presumption that all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers. In Europe people had only ever seen white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" was held as an example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? In that context, a black swan was impossible or at least nonexistent.

After a Dutch expedition led by explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1697, discovered black swans in Western Australia, the term metamorphosed to connote that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.

It was refined by Taleb to mean events with the following three attributes.

  1. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

  2. Second, it carries an extreme impact.

  3. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Black Swan is a useful concept, but when thinking about low-likelihood, high-consequence events, it can be useful to expand the metaphor slightly to think of swans of different ‘colors’:

  1. Black Swans: Unpredictable, rare, extreme impact, and sometimes seemingly predictable in hindsight. E.g., Invasion by extraterrestrials.

  2. White Swans: Predictable extreme impact events. Questions such as timing, likelihood, and/or consequences however, are not calculable. E.g., Stock market crashes, earthquakes, pandemics, and terrorist attacks.

  3. Blue Swans: Rare, extreme impact, conceivable but unpredictable. E.g., The impact of dark matter particles causes the sun to implode.

  4. Green Swans: Rare, extreme impact, somewhat predictable. E.g., War, famine, and climate change.

Such distinctions are interesting for categorizing risks and thinking about treatments. In practice, however, they are largely academic, and an all-swans approach is likely to produce the best results for risk management.

Even the 9/11 attacks, often cited as examples of Black Swan events, were not unpredictable. Perhaps the precise time and location are difficult but the concept of weaponizing aircraft for suicide missions was being discussed by aviation security experts in the 1990s.[1] We already had ample insights. Quite apart from the question of any intelligence failures that may have contributed, the type of attack was a natural evolution of events that had already transpired.

An earlier World Trade Center bombing occurred on February 26, 1993, when a truck bomb was detonated in the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York City. The blast killed six people and injured over 1,000 others. While the 1993 attack was not an official Al-Qaeda operation, the mastermind behind it, Ramzi Yousef, had trained in Al-Qaeda camps. Osama bin Laden was never directly charged with the 1993 attack, but investigators later found connections between the 1993 plotters and Al-Qaeda.[2]

Suicide bombers had already been a feature of the 20th century. At 11:18 am on the 12th of October, 2000, 17 US Navy sailors were killed in Yemen when two Al Qaeda operatives used a small fiberglass boat loaded with explosives in a suicide mission against the USS Cole.

Planes had also previously flown into buildings in New York City. On the 28th of July 1945, at 09:40 am in dense fog, Lt. Colonel William Smith and 13 others were killed when the B-25 bomber they were traveling in crashed into the Empire State Building in New York. All this is also in the context of Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War 2 making deliberate suicidal crashes into enemy targets, inflicting significant damage.

Whether or not we can foresee the precise date, location, and nature of a risk event, the broader scenarios are entirely predictable. They many not be quantifiable nor even credible at the time, and may even exist primarily in the world of science fiction, but most things are foreseeable to a certain extent.

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