Risk versus Uncertainty

March 21, 2019

From the FT recently, on the difference between risk and uncertainty, and its implications:

“It (the distinction) was first made back in 1921 by the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. Risk, he said, is something we can quantify, as when we say there’s a one-in-six risk of a die rolling a one. Uncertainty, however, cannot be quantified…

The biggest uncertainty is: technical change. Only one in eight of the US’s largest 500 companies in 1955 are still in the largest 500 today. And only two of the UK’s largest employers in 1907 are independent stock market-listed companies today: Prudential and WH Smith.

Herein lies a big difference between risk and uncertainty. Some risks diminish over time as losses are followed by gains…

Uncertainty, however, increases with time. We have a fairly good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunuties and threats facing a particular company over the next 12 months. But if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue about them over the next 30 years.”

In this context it’s revealing how tricky it is to forecast long term change, say through research planning, see here.

Feynman and Climbing Mont Blanc

August 28, 2018

Poster for a current Caltech Archives special exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (1918-1988)

I’ve written previously (see here) on how the famous physicist Richard Feynman figured out how to get out of a creative block that occurred after his initial revolutionary successes (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965):

That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

However recently I came across an article by John Preskill of Cal Tech which mentions another viewpoint attributed to Sidney Coleman (who was a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University). Preskill is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.” 

There are lots of nice stories and insights in the Preskill article (entitled ‘Feynman After 40’) which is well worth a read.

Grand Challenges and Anticipating the Future

August 22, 2018

I met up with a colleague recently who works in the transport area and she recommended I take a look at a couple of articles including (for general context) the UK Innovation Strategy. The document detailing this (published in Nov 2017) can be found here, including:

“As well as setting a path to improved productivity, our Industrial Strategy sets out four areas (Grand Challenges) where Britain can lead the global technological revolution.”

It’s interesting to consider these big picture themes as it’s all to easy to get locked into details in specific projects.

The Four Grand Challenges are (plus some further explanatory extracts, see here):

1. Artificial intelligence and big data

They can be seen as new industries in their own right, but they are also transforming business models across many sectors as they deploy vast datasets to identify better ways of doing complex tasks – from helping doctors diagnose medical conditions more effectively to allowing people to communicate across the globe using instantaneous speech recognition and translation software.

2. Clean growth

The move to cleaner economic growth – through low carbon technologies and the efficient use of resources – is one of the greatest industrial opportunities of our time. By one estimate, the UK’s clean economy could grow at four times the rate of GDP. Whole new industries will be created and existing industries transformed as we move towards a low carbon, more resource-efficient economy.

3. The future of mobility (people, goods, services)

The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, and mobility could be available when we want it, where we want it and how we want it.

4. Meeting the needs of an ageing society

The prospect of longer lives will require people to plan their careers and retirement differently. Ageing populations will create new demands for technologies, products and services, including new care technologies, new housing models and innovative savings products for retirement.

The first three you could see as predominantly technological challenges but the fourth is far more complex as it will need to take into account inter-generational attitudes and mindsets. A good example of a cross-disciplinary project.

Inspiring Questions

April 7, 2017

I started my career as a research physicist and later moved into the commercial R&D sector. However I still keep in touch with various friends who stayed in academia. Now and again I’m tempted to take a look at research papers from people I knew just to get a feel for things (there is an excellent preprint service available: https://arxiv.org/ ).

Most research papers start with some motivation for the problem, the approach taken (with lots of details) and the results obtained plus a (usually brief) discussion of remaining issues. However looking at one paper I was surprised to find that a whole page was devoted to the open questions that the work lead to plus initial ideas on how to progress each one (and sometimes why an obvious approach had failed).

So the investigative work lead to results plus a string of further interesting questions (that anyone could pick up on if they were interested) and this was an aspect that was emphasised. I won’t give the reference as the work is very technical, the main point is the notion that progressing one question leads to concrete progress (‘answers’) plus a set of further incisive questions.

This may seem rather logical and obvious except that, at least in my experience, this is rarely the way things are presented (either written or through a talk). It seems to me that this observation is not restricted to technical areas but more or less anything that involves some investigative research and thinking.

Often the impression is given that a major issue has been ‘solved’ by a certain approach whereas the truth is more likely that a certain degree of clarification has been made and a number of really interesting follow-on questions tumble out (which should be exciting/inspiring!).

To take advantage of this, it would be natural to invoke an interactive conversation. So, instead of slides plus a general and typically short Q&A session, there would be an overview of the approach (with a few clarifying questions) plus a highly interactive and dynamic conversation with the aim of pushing things on or at least deepening the collective understanding. Although this may not be suitable for all topics it should work for some.

It’s obvious why this doesn’t happen as it shows vulnerability, there are loose ends and truly interactive group conversations are still relatively rare and unfamiliar. However, at the same time the issue of ‘death by Powerpoint’ is still prevalent and acknowledged to be seriously lacking.

Maybe the germ of something new here, or perhaps some sort of hybrid as a less-threatening compromise approach?

On the general issue of thinking about and running good conversational events, take a look at David Gurteen’s very interesting site here (work in progress).

Selling The Future

April 5, 2017

From Seth Godin:

When we buy a stake in the future, what we’re actually buying is how it makes us feel today.

We move up all the imagined benefits and costs of something in the future and experience them now. That’s why it’s hard to stick to a diet (because celery tastes bad today, and we can’t easily experience feeling healthy in ten years). That’s why we make such dumb financial decisions (because it’s so tempting to believe magical stories about tomorrow).

If you want people to be smarter or more active or more generous about their future, you’ll need to figure out how to make the transaction about how it feels right now.

Hard Work or Magic?

March 16, 2017

I came across this interesting quote:

“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have got ourselves. I suggest, furthermore, that when you feel that you could almost have written the book yourself—that’s the moment when it’s influencing you. You are not influenced when you say, ‘How marvelous! What a revelation! How monumental! Oh!’ You are being extended. You are being influenced when you say ‘I might have written that myself if I had not been so busy.’” – E. M. Forster, “A Book That Influenced Me,” from Two Cheers for Democracy

It reminded me of a quote from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe on the famous physicist Richard Feynman:

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.” — Hans Bethe

I’ve written on Feynman a number of times previously, see here.


Everyone Gets The Future Wrong

February 13, 2017

Official trailer for Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog)

From a review of the movie on Ars Technica:

“No one ever gets the future right,” cosmologist Lawrence Krauss tells Herzog. We never got our flying cars and Moonbases—we got the World Wide Web instead. The future is daunting because it’s something we haven’t thought of yet. It’s not going to be a utopian interplanetary society of jetpacks, but it’s not going to be The Hunger Games either. Even someone who says “we’re all going to hell in a handbasket!” is trying to put the future into a tidy little box. So it says a lot that Herzog, a filmmaker who once threatened his leading man with a rifle and ate his own shoe on a bet, can’t make up his mind where we’re headed.