Sunday, November 13, 2011

Future of Forecasting - Black Swan Events

Director of the Future Planet Research Centre- David Hunter Tow, contends that the survival future of humanity will be contingent on our ability to forecast the Black Swan disruptive events likely to impact global society over the next decade.
Standard forecasting methods by definition have a poor track record in predicting Black Swan events, such as the GFC and Arab Spring. These are often be triggered by subtle environmental, technological, economic or social changes. They can however cause massive disruption, both to the detriment and benefit of the social status quo and therefore need to be predicted and managed much more effectively.
A number of advanced projects are currently underway worldwide, including the EU flagship FuturICT simulator, to attempt to provide better modelling and forecasting of such events. But it is doubtful whether coordinated action based on such models can be implemented to the required level of confidence and within the timescale needed to avoid many of the potential disasters looming over the next decade to 2020.
This level of uncertainty is increasing as natural disasters across the world, such as more frequent droughts and floods as well as recurrent earthquakes in high population areas such as Japan, create social flow-on disruption on an unprecedented scale. As society becomes more complex and the planet’s climate more volatile such events will proliferate, producing increasingly unexpected and violent outcomes.
But natural and man-made disasters are only part of the story however. New innovative technologies in the cyber and knowledge environment that have the potential to help solve social problems, also have the capacity to cause disruptive Black Swan events, because of the hyper-speed speed of their introduction, allowing insufficient time to assess critical side-effects.
No community or country will be exempt from these consequences. Therefore it is vital to develop early warning systems to mitigate their capacity for chaotic outcomes.
Three examples are provided of Black Swan events that are likely to occur over the next decade from the Centre’s quarterly Risk Review Report. All are scenarios that are likely to impact humanity on a global scale.

Black Swan Event 1- Evolutionary Thrashing
As the frequency of natural and human generated change increases it will become much more difficult for society to adapt to the consequences, before a new wave of change occurs, triggering the phenomenon of ‘evolutionary thrashing’ at the social as well as environmental level, with dire consequences.
Impacts with a high probability of occurrence due to such adaptive incapacity, will include global recession and collapse of markets, waves of unrest particularly in developing countries leading to spreading conflict and mass human migrations as well as disruption of major public and private scientific, engineering and social programs, creating increases in global poverty, malnutrition and disease.
Evolutionary Thrashing has been previously associated mainly with rapid biological change leading to destruction of ecosystems and species, triggered by global warming. But several research groups, including the Centre have recently extrapolated such a phenomenon to the social environment, including additional disruption caused by rapid technological and cultural change.
The potential for damage to the social fabric from ongoing evolutionary thrashing therefore poses one of the most dangerous threats to our society in modern times.

Black Swan Event 2- Global Conflict triggered by Food Scarcity
Evolutionary thrashing impacts will be amplified by increasing food scarcity and depletion of fresh water sources over the next decade.
At the current rate of consumption by a global population of 7 billion and rising, combined with the increasing risk of drought, the planet is rapidly running out of fresh water and food. Survival will be contingent on continuous adaptation in the form of re-allocation and prioritisation of all major natural and man-made resources on a global scale.
A recent report by the Cambridge Centre for Complexity estimates that increasing food shortages in developing countries, will likely trigger conflict as early as 2013. If not addressed this could spread globally. The precedent has been set by history. Food shortages triggered by drought and expanding populations have lead to the demise of a number of earlier nation states, empires and civilisations.
Food scarcity is already in train, due primarily to the melting of the mountain snows caused by global warming leading to the eventual drying of the major river systems in all continents, combined with disruption to monsoon weather patterns in Asia, increasing populations, the expansion of monocultures such as palm oil and biofuel production, as well as groundwater pollution from shale gas production.
Although desalination plants are now being commissioned in drought affected areas such as the Middle East and Australia, these have only the capacity to service major cities and urban environments in the short term. Genetic engineering techniques to increase crop yields in drying regions will also be extremely valuable in the future, but will have only a marginal mitigation effect over the next decade.
It is estimated that the drying of the major food bowls of China, India and Africa, will force another billion people into poverty and malnutrition. This will bring to around 20% of the global population at at risk, and presents a huge challenge for the International community.

Black Swan Event 3- The Intelligent Web 4.0 becomes a Decision Partner
Managing the complexity of the decision-making required to mitigate such risks to human civilisation will be largely contingent on the ability by humans to harness the enormous growing computational intelligence of the Web. In its future incarnation as the Intelligent Web, it will combine AI techniques and semantic reasoning, to find solutions to social problems autonomously and implement them in the form of advanced computational processes and algorithms.
This will create a new societal decision framework never before contemplated by human society, requiring responses in real time and with minimal human intervention in a manner similar to managing a modern manufacturing plant or flying an aircraft on autopilot.
Accepting the decision capability of the Web as an equal and in the future- senior decision partner, integrating up to 10 billion human minds, will be one of the defining paradigm shifts of the 21st century. It will involve a very radical mind-shift. Large cooperative projects such as FutureICT are important stepping stones towards this goal, but now the timeframe for concerted action has become so restricted that the impetus towards global cooperation via the Web will have to be vastly accelerated.
Barriers between individuals, teams, institutions and nations will need to be eliminated. This type of survival mindset has been adopted many times before in history by humans, in the face of the threat of a nation or empire facing imminent annihilation in time of war. Traditional norms are scrapped and evolution’s survival mechanism comes into play.
We are now in the throes of a destructive force posing a much greater threat than a war- the annihilation of our entire 15,000 year civilisation; perhaps the only one in the Universe. If humans delay beyond the next decade to accept such radical action, it will likely be too late.
Overcoming the inertia and complacency built into our social framework will be difficult. Many leaders and politicians still continue to ignore the warning signals that have been apparent to many individuals for over fifty years.
But the time to act has now almost run out.
New technological developments in renewable energy and conservation remain vital, but it is the decision timeframe governing the drawing of all these strands together that is now the bottleneck. Web 4.0, the culmination of humanity’s knowledge and innovation, will need the wisdom and freedom to function largely autonomously within an ethical framework and override the many conflicts of interest that will arise.
Such a concerted strategy will change human society for ever, but at the same time set it on a path to redemption for the mindless exploitation of planet earth and our long term survival. We will have to cede part of our individuality to the global good and recognise that only through co-opting the power of the Intelligent Web, co-joined with human intelligence, will the decision-making rigor relating to global resource allocation and sustainability essential for our civilisation’s longevity be possible.
Whether our human intelligence, survival instincts and institutional framework can make it happen by 2020 is debatable.
But we owe it to future generations to at least try.