Stanford researchers have developed a computational method for predicting unprecedented, extreme events, known as “black swan” events. Such events can be found, for example, in economics, politics and ecology.
Researchers combined avalanche physics with ecosystem data to create a computational method for predicting extreme ecological events. The method may also have applications in economics and politics.
A black swan event is a highly unlikely but massively consequential incident, such as the 2008 global recession and the loss of one-third of the world’s saiga antelope in a matter of days in 2015. Challenging the quintessentially unpredictable nature of black swan events, bioengineers at Stanford University are suggesting a method for forecasting these supposedly unforeseeable fluctuations.
“By analyzing long-term data from three ecosystems, we were able to show that fluctuations that happen in different biological species are statistically the same across different ecosystems,” said Samuel Bray, a research assistant in the lab of Bo Wang, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford. “That suggests there are certain underlying universal processes that we can take advantage of in order to forecast this kind of extreme behavior.”
The forecasting method the researchers have developed, which was detailed recently in PLOS Computational Biology, is based on natural systems and could find use in health care and environmental research. It also has potential applications in disciplines outside ecology that have their own black swan events, such as economics and politics.
“This work is exciting because it’s a chance to take the knowledge and the computational tools that we’re building in the lab and use those to better understand – even predict or forecast – what happens in the world surrounding us,” said Wang, who is senior author of the paper. “It connects us to the bigger world.”
From microbes to avalanches
Over years of studying microbial communities, Bray noticed several instances where one species would undergo an unanticipated population boom, overtaking its neighbors. Discussing these events with Wang, they wondered whether this phenomenon occurred outside the lab as well and, if so, whether it could be predicted.
In order to address this question, the researchers had to find other biological systems that experience black swan events. The researchers needed details, not only about the black swan events themselves but also the context in which they occurred. So, they specifically sought ecosystems that scientists have been closely monitoring for many years.
“These data have to capture long periods of time and that’s hard to collect,” said Bray, who is lead author of the paper. “It’s much more than a PhD-worth of information. But that’s the only way you can see the spectra of these fluctuations at large scales.”
Bray settled on three eclectic datasets: an eight-year study of plankton from the Baltic Sea with species levels measured twice weekly; net carbon measurements from a deciduous broadleaf forest at Harvard University, gathered every 30 minutes since 1991; and measurements of barnacles, algae and mussels on the coast of New Zealand, taken monthly for over 20 years.
The researchers then analyzed these three datasets using theory about avalanches – physical fluctuations that, like black swan events, exhibit short-term, sudden, extreme behavior. At its core, this theory attempts to explain the physics of systems like avalanches, earthquakes, fire embers, or even crumpling candy wrappers, which all respond to external forces with discrete events of various magnitudes or sizes – a phenomenon scientists call “crackling noise.”
Built on the analysis, the researchers developed a method for predicting black swan events, one that is designed to be flexible across species and timespans, and able to work with data that are far less detailed and more complex than those used to develop it.
“Existing methods rely on what we have seen to predict what might happen in the future, and that’s why they tend to miss black swan events,” said Wang. “But Sam’s method is different in that it assumes we are only seeing part of the world. It extrapolates a little about what we’re missing, and it turns out that helps tremendously in terms of prediction.”
Forecasting in the real world
The researchers tested their method using the three ecosystem datasets on which it was built. Using only fragments of each dataset – specifically fragments which contained the smallest fluctuations in the variable of interest – they were able to accurately predict extreme events that occurred in those systems.
They would like to expand the application of their method to other systems in which black swan events are also present, such as in economics, epidemiology, politics and physics. At present, the researchers are hoping to collaborate with field scientists and ecologists to apply their method to real-world situations where they could make a positive difference in the lives of other people and the planet.
The Latest Updates from Bing News & Google News
Go deeper with Bing News on:
Predicting unprecedented events
- Q&A: Physical scientists turn to deep learning to improve Earth systems modelingon September 4, 2020 at 12:40 pm
The role of deep learning in science is at a turning point, with weather, climate, and Earth systems modeling emerging as an exciting application area for physics-informed deep learning that can more ...
- Ondrasek And West: For Hope After Covid-19, Take A Look At Historyon September 3, 2020 at 3:58 pm
The year was 1920 and the events that occurred over the decade after that tragedy should be a message of hope for all of us in 2020. This country came storming back. The expert's predictions of a ...
- Google Maps is improving travel ETAs with DeepMind AIon September 3, 2020 at 7:14 am
Google Maps helps users navigate over one billion kilometers in more than 200 countries and territories daily, and Google says its estimated time of arrival (ETA) predictions have been consistently ...
- Seven predictions for the 2020-21 Hong Kong racing seasonon September 2, 2020 at 12:42 pm
The holidays (if you could call them that) are officially over and the 2020-21 Hong Kong racing season is upon ...
- NBA: 3 August takeaways and 3 predictions for the playoffs in Septemberon September 2, 2020 at 3:44 am
August takeaways and 3 September predictions for the NBA playoffs I like to make the takeaways and predictions articles about just what is on the court, ...
Go deeper with Google Headlines on:
Predicting unprecedented events
Go deeper with Bing News on:
Predicting extreme ecological events
- Polygenic risk score for the prediction of breast cancer is related to lesser terminal duct lobular unit involution of the breaston September 7, 2020 at 2:10 am
Terminal duct lobular units (TDLUs) are the predominant anatomical structures where breast cancers originate. Having lesser degrees of age-related TDLU involution, measured as higher TDLUs counts or ...
- A top strategist says the S&P 500 has predicted the election winner 87% of the time in nearly 100 years, but 'transformational' events pose a challenge for 2020 voteon September 5, 2020 at 5:30 am
The incumbent party tends to secure victory when stocks are higher in the 3 months before an election than at the start of the year.
- Court-Mandated Engineering Reports Predict Section of Steve Bannon’s ‘$500 Used Car’ Border Wall Will Fall into Rio Grandeon September 2, 2020 at 11:55 am
Mark Tompkins, an environmental engineer who specializes in river management, penned one of the reports saying it was inevitable that WBTW’s private bollard fence on the Rio Grande “will fail during ...
- Engineers Predict Trump's Privately-Built Border Wall Is Bound to Collapseon September 2, 2020 at 7:29 am
Two new reports show engineering concerns about Trump's privately-built border wall, which experts say is at risk of collapse.
- Climate change fuels fears of environmental damage in Butte Countyon September 1, 2020 at 4:30 am
Local scientists describe the year’s wildfire season and extreme weather as signs of intensifying climate change, coupled with environmental impacts from COVID-19 — “These fires ...