Scientists are planning to use the largest supercomputers to simulate life on Earth, including financial systems, economies, and whole societies. The project is called "Living Earth Simulator" and part of a huge EU research initiative named FuturIcT. Supercomputers are already being used to explore complex social and economic problems that science can understand in no other way. For example, ETH Zurich's professor for transport engineering Kay Axhausen is simulating the travel activities of all 7.5 million inhabitants of Switzerland to forecast and mitigate traffic congestion. Other researchers at the ETH -- all working within its Competence Center for Coping with Crises in Complex Socio-Economic Systems (CCSS) -- are mining huge amounts of financial data to detect dangerous bubbles in stock and housing markets, potential bankruptcy cascades in networks of companies, or similar vulnerabilities in other complex networks such as communication networks or the Internet.
Coping with Crises
In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.
The CCSS is currently the biggest shareholder of ETH Zurich's Brutus supercomputing cluster, which is currently the 88th fastest computer in the world and ranked 10th in Europe. Social supercomputing is also a new focus of other renowned research centres such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Brookings Institution in the United States. Such simulations, researchers now widely recognize, represent the best chance to gain insight into highly complex problems ranging from traffic flows to evacuation scenarios of entire cities or the spreading of epidemics. Independent projects in the United States and in Europe have already embarked on efforts to build simulations of the entire global economy.
The FuturIcT project aims to bring many efforts of this kind together in order to simulate the entire globe, including all the diverse interactions of social systems and of the economy with our environment. The concept for the project has already been deeply explored within several European research projects.
Large-Scale Data Mining
Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organize data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behavior.
In a practical sense, the scientists behind the FuturIcT project foresee the development of crises observatories and decision-support systems for politicians and business leaders. "Such observatories would detect advance warning signs of many different kinds of emerging problems, including large-scale congestion, financial instabilities, the spreading of diseases, environmental change, resource shortages and social conflicts," said Dirk Helbing, a professor of Sociology specializing in Modeling and Simulation at ETH Zurich. The FuturIcT project he leads aims to put the power of today's information technology to work in creating the tools needed to address the challenges of humanity in the future, and to ensure social and economic well-being around the globe.
Economic and Policy Opportunities
George Soros, who has established the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET) with an endowment of 50 million dollars, has welcomed the initiative and writes: "The team of scientists that Dr. Helbing has gathered together can, I believe, make a significant contribution to the understanding of the evolution and change in societies as they meet the formidable issues of governance, climate change, sustainable economic balance that we are all faced with in the coming decades."