Sunday, December 2, 2012

Managing Black Swans using Operations Research

LPHC Events
The importance of modeling Low-Probability High Consequence (LPHC) events, popularized in recent times by Nassim Taleb as "Black Swans" has been recognized by Operations Researchers for quite some time. As this recent article (via Reddit) implies, it is both demystifying and useful to talk of consequential rare events in terms of a range of probabilities rather than a potentially misleading binary classification of B/W Swans. For example, LPHC modeling is critical to identifying min-risk Hazmat routes, a popular research area within OR. In addition to standard risk measures such as the expected probability of an accident occurring on a given route, or the total expected cost of a chosen route, planners also explicitly limit the conditional expected cost associated with a catastrophic event along a prescribed route if in fact such an event were to occur along any link in the route. Practical OR models aim for robustness by never focusing on just one objective given that extremal solutions tend to faithfully follow the no-free-lunch rule. OR Planners typically  track a variety of risk objectives and seek alternative optimal solutions that adequately address the multiple modes of failure that can be triggered over time.

Narrative-Rational, Time-Dependent World
Until recently, I thought that coin tosses were 50-50 events. In an unbiased, narrative-free world they are, but as Venkatesh Rao argues in his book 'Tempo' (and this understanding is subject to my limited ability to grasp and interpret the dense writing style employed in this book) that there is no absolutely narrative-independent useful model of rational decision-making: "... there is no meaningful way to talk about specific decisions outside of a narrative frame and a concrete context, any more than it is possible to talk about physics without reference to a specific, physical coordinate frame ..."
Rao agrees with Taleb's 'Black Swan' book claim that introducing a narrative injects bias, but is disinclined to adopt the approach of severing the narrative from the decision making process. Instead, Rao chooses to embrace narrative and his book examines elegant and sound decision-making within a given enactment over the narrative clock. On the other hand, Venkatesh Rao feels that the narrative-independent "Calculative rational decision-making finesses situatedness by working only with highly controlled clocks. When you start this way, seductive general theories of decision-making take center stage, and local conditions are forgotten, minimized or dismissed as “details.”. Perhaps, by zooming in on the narrative of a guy who makes decisions based on the outcome of 'vigorously tossing and catch a coin', researchers were able to recognize these subtle 'local conditions' that allowed them to predict the bias in real-life coin tosses.

Risk and Analytics
How do we deal with risk associated with decisions prescribed by today's predictive analytical models embedded within decision support systems? This is an important issue since our underlying predictive analytical models are calibrated using noisy data generated from past decisions. As long as our recommendations lie within the historical range, its consequences can be expected to be reasonably bounded. However, once we create new history (e.g. pricing a product at a value never ever done before), our predictive model is forced to extrapolate. Per 'Tempo', we now exit a closed world and enter an open one, where "The open world is a world that includes what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns” and Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “black swans” (rare, highly consequential events)." In such instances, history is of limited use as a guide, and statistically driven analytics can fail. Rao says that such calculative rational [analytical models]: "... can be viewed as a way of systematically leveraging or amplifying intuition. But intuition amplified through calculative-rational models, while necessary, is not sufficient for true risk management.".

Welcome to Entropic Decision Optimization
One option to survive the open world is to have in place a theoretical model that anticipates the consequences of such unforeseen events.  'Tempo' suggests that "Informal human mental models can comprehend open worlds because they can contain things that haven’t been understood: a high entropy state." Although Rao rightly suggests that analytical methods for such weakly understood "high entropy" situations are in its infancy, having even a simple and reasonable model helps. For example, in a recently patented pricing optimization method, we attempt to reduce a user-specified measure of 'entropy' (in the form of business disruption) associated with recommendations, which has worked reasonably well within a retail narrative so far. However, in the narrative-rational world of 'Tempo', the laws of thermodynamics dictate that all good things must come to an end regardless of whether we encounter a black swan or not. A simple "Frankenstein design principle" that we discussed a couple of years ago suggests that the design of particularly complex systems should explicitly assume a failure at some point in time. 'Tempo' chooses the example of 'Tetris' (rather than Blackjack/Poker, that analytics folks more commonly use) to illustrate that we can maximally delay the inevitable by chalking up elegant but temporary wins via better entropic decision making. A time-knapsack, if you will.

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