Her research suggests that other fields could borrow risk analysis strategies from engineering to make better management decisions, even in the case of once-in-a-blue-moon events where statistics are scant, unreliable or non-existent.
Paté-Cornell argues that a true "black swan" – an event that is impossible to imagine because we've known nothing like it in the past – is extremely rare. The AIDS virus is one of very few examples. Usually, there are important clues and warning signs of emerging hazards (e.g., a new flu virus) that can be monitored to guide quick risk management responses.
The attacks of 9/11 were not black swans, she said. The FBI knew that questionable people were taking ﬂying lessons on large aircraft. And a group of terrorists seemed to have had a similar plan in 1994, when they took over in Algiers, Algeria, an Air France aircraft bound for Paris.
Similarly, she argues that the risk of a "perfect storm," where multiple forces join to create a disaster greater than the sum of its parts, can be assessed in a systematic way before the event because even though their conjunctions are rare, the events that compose them – and all the myriad events that are dependent on them – have been observed in the past.
"Risk analysis is not about predicting anything before it happens, it's just giving the probability of various scenarios," she said. She argues that systematically exploring those scenarios can help companies and regulators make smarter decisions before an event in the face of uncertainty.
An engineering analysis could also be used to examine the development and potential impacts of what are considered by many to be unlikely new technology but with potentially very high impact.
Greater than human level artificial intelligence
Massively scaled quantum computing
Inexpensive nuclear fusion for energy and space propulsion
Radical life extension
Mach effect propulsion