Friday, February 17, 2012

After the black swans: Anti-fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan is evolving his theories of risk assessment. Apparently his next book will be about a new word, he has coined: Anti-fragility.

Although I still find his description of the concept a bit hard to grasp, the basic idea sounds intriguing. Contrary to systems that are fragile (easily broken), anti-fragile systems get stronger by being stressed and shocked. They get used to change, accidents, hard wear etc. Just the kind of systems we would like have, rather than the brittle systems in infrastructure, technology and finance, which are we so dependent on.

How do you make systems anti-fragile: By making them adapt to regular stress: Like a forest that regularly experiences small fires will not be so vulnerable to the very rare, but completely devastating forest fire, that is bound to happen eventually.

You can hear Taleb explain it in more and somewhat technical and slurred, details in this interview on the Econ-talk podcast. He tells that his book should be due late 2012.

Actually, Taleb mentioned Anti-fragility in chapter 4 of his book ”Fooled by randomness”:

“For the anti-fragile, shocks bring more benefits (equivalently, less harm) as their intensity increases —up to a point.

A simple case —what is known heuristically by weightlifters. Lifting one

hundred pounds once brings more benefits than lifting fifty pounds twice, and certainly a lot more than lifting one pound a hundred times. (Benefits here mean strengthening of the body, muscle growth and beach-friendly looks). The second fifty pounds play a larger role, hence the nonlinear (that is, we will see, convexity) effect. Every additional pound brings more benefits, until one gets close to the limit, what weightlifters call “failure”.

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