Thursday, March 27, 2008
Chance had it that I’d pick up Nassim Taleb’s book, Black Swan*, and read this paragraph regarding causality, randomness and technological discoveries (Taleb was recalling a visit he had made to a biotech company):
This was my first encounter with a firm that lived off Black Swans of the positive kind. I was told that a scientist managed the company and that he had the instinct, as a scientist, to just let scientists look wherever their instinct took them. Commercialization came later. My hosts, scientists at heart, understood that research involves a large element of serendipity†, which can pay off big as long as one knows how serendipitous the business can be and structures it around that fact. Viagra, which changed the mental outlook and social mores of retired men, was meant to be a hypertension drug. Another hypertension drug led to a hair-growth medication. My friend Bruce Goldberg, who understands randomness, calls these unintended side applications “corners”. While many worry about unintended consequences, technology adventurers thrive on them.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable
When I started working at YDreams I was excited to discover that YLabs, our Research and Development unit, also functions with a considerable degree of autonomy and our researchers are encouraged to pursue things that at first sight would not be related to the company’s portfolio. At one point, though, a flag would rise in my non-scientist mind, thinking ‘but shouldn’t they be narrowing down to the company’s commercial needs?’. I guess sometimes some of us might confuse narrowness with focus. Because when you come to realize that the Internet, the personal computer or penicillin (and many others), were all inventions that we now associate with something their original creators weren’t looking for in the first place, it becomes easy to understand why it is important that YLabs functions as it does. After all, YDreams was founded by five scientists and who knows what kind of (positive) Black Swans we will be generating next?
*”a black swan is a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. Taleb regards many scientific discoveries as black swans—”undirected” and unpredicted.” (wikipedia)