ResilienceEngineers and Economists Prize Efficiency, but Nature Favors Resilience – Lessons from Texas, COVID-19 and the 737 Max

By Moshe Y. Vardi

Published 18 May 2021

The damage from Winter Storm Uri, the economic devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic and the fatal Boeing 737 Max accidents show the price society pays for a relentless pursuit of efficiency. Modern society has prioritized free-market economics and efficient computer systems to the detriment of other priorities. Studies of algorithms show that efficiency can come at a high cost. Sexual reproduction and car insurance highlight the benefits of resilience.

There is a trade-off between efficiency and resilience. Efficiency requires optimal adaptation to an existing environment, while resilience is an ability to adapt to large or sudden changes in the environment. Society’s emphasis on short-term gains has long tipped the balance in favor of efficiency.

However, the relentless pursuit of efficiency removes hurdles to the speed and reach of transactions, hurdles that also serve as buffers against shocks. Buffers provide resilience in the face of ecological, geopolitical and financial crises.

As a computer scientist, I look at how algorithms provide a way to test assumptions about resilience, even as the field of computing itself shares the bias toward efficiency. Three recent crises – the 2021 winter storm in Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Boeing 737 Max software failure – highlight the cost of valuing efficiency over resilience and provide lessons for bringing society into balance.

Economists and Engineers Love Efficiency
Economics has long been obsessed with efficiencyEconomic efficiency means that goods and production are distributed or allocated to their most valuable uses and waste is eliminated or minimized.

Free-market advocates argue that through individual self-interest and freedom of production and consumption, economic efficiency is achieved and the best interests of society, as a whole, are fulfilled. But this conflates efficiency with the best outcome.

The intense focus on efficiency at the expense of resilience plagues not only business and economics but also technology. Society has educated generations of computer scientists that analyzing algorithms, the step-by-step instructions at the heart of computer software, boils down to measuring their computational efficiency.

“The Art of Computer Programming,” one of the founding texts of computer science, is dedicated to the analysis of algorithms, which is the process of figuring out the amount of time, storage or other resources needed to execute them. In other words, efficiency is the sole concern in the design of algorithms, according to this guide.

But what about resilience? Designing resilient algorithms requires computer scientists to consider in advance what can go wrong and build effective countermeasures into their algorithms. Without designing for resilience, you get efficient but brittle algorithms.