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Posted: July 31, 2013

The futurist: Every disaster has a beginning: Part 1

In search of "Anomaly Zero"

Thomas Frey

In 2012, when 15-year old Jack Andraka’s uncle died of pancreatic cancer, he decided to look into it. He found that the current test for pancreatic cancer was more than 60 years old, cost more than $800 and wasn’t very reliable.

For this reason, more than 85 percent of pancreatic cancer cases were detected too late, when the chances of survival were only 2 percent. 

As a bright and inspired young mind, Jack was able to devise a far better testing procedure, which he took to the researchers at Johns Hopkins University. 

The result is a new dipstick-type diagnostic test that uses a paper sensor, similar to that of the diabetic test strip. This strip tests for cancer biomarkers in blood or urine, is more than 90 percent accurate and costs just 3 cents per test.

Jack’s ingenious test strip will soon be used for early testing of other diseases as well. But this line of thinking doesn’t just apply to the medical arena.

  • We can’t stop a hurricane after its reached full intensity.
  • We can’t stop an avalanche after it’s halfway down the mountain.
  • We can’t stop a tidal wave after it already in motion.
  • We can’t stop a war once the bombs start dropping.
  • We can’t stop a plague once it’s reached several continents.

As tiny humans battling the giant forces of nature, we need to do battle when the problems are still small. Jack was able to push the discovery of pancreatic cancer far closer to Anomaly Zero: the first detectable sign that something is wrong.

Every major disaster in the world begins with the shifting of a single molecule, a spark of electrical energy or some synapse firing in a different way.

We might not be able to spot that first sign of change, but can get far closer than what we detect today. So what exactly is Anomaly Zero and how close can we actually get to it and intervene before major damage begins? 

The Butterfly Effect

In 1969, chaos theorist Edward Lorenz used the theoretical example of a butterfly’s wings flapping, where that simple movement became the root cause of a hurricane forming several weeks later on the other side of the planet. This has become known as the butterfly effect.

This type of cause and effect relationship, in chaos theory, is used to describe a nonlinear system where the true sequence of events is so complex that it can only be sorted out after the fact.

Anomaly Zero is different than that. Using an interventionist’s mindset, Anomaly Zero is the theoretical earliest possible point where danger can be confirmed as a real threat. In virtually all cases, it remains theoretical because we are a long ways from both understanding it and figuring out ways to track it.

The primary point of this discussion is simply to move the earliest red flags of detection far closer to the point of origin so most disasters can be averted.

Defining a Minimum Detectable Change

When a forest fire starts, it’s relatively easy to put out the flames when it only covers a few square feet. Once it grows to an entire acre, it becomes far more difficult to contain.

At the same time, not all fires build momentum and turn into disasters. Fires in campgrounds, being carefully monitored by campers, rarely get out of control. So just scouting for fires in a forest will produce lots of meaningless data points, otherwise known as statistical noise.

With enough data points, certain disorders will cause an emerging situation to be flagged, first as noteworthy, something that needs to be monitored, and something that may eventually be upgraded to a dangerous condition.

If we think about change as measured along a 1,000-mile long yardstick, Anomaly Zero is at the beginning, and today’s early warning systems are at the end. Our goal should be to determine the earliest possible point that we can detect a problem?

How can we detect danger earlier, much earlier, while the situation is still controllable? 

Situational Awareness

Everything I’ve discussed so far is about building awareness, and using this added awareness to halt something negative from happening. In this context it becomes easier to visualize a far better early warning system for detecting: 

  • Natural Disasters
  • Corruption
  • Health Issues
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Infrastructure Failures
  • Environmental Dangers
  • Deviant Behavior

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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