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A telescope for spotting global crises

Posted for Philip ‘Crystal’ Ball

The good news is that your future can be predicted. The bad news is that it’ll cost a billion euros.

That, at least, is what a team of scientists led by Dirk Helbing of the ETH in Switzerland believes. And as they point out, a billion euros is small fare compared with the bill for the current financial crisis – which might conceivably have been anticipated with the massive social-science simulations they want to establish.

This might seem the least auspicious moment to start placing faith in economic modelling, but Helbing’s team proposes to transform the way it is done. They will abandon the discredited and doctrinaire old models in favour of ones built from the bottom up, which harness the latest understanding of how people behave and act collectively rather than reducing the economic world to caricature for the sake of mathematical convenience.

And it is not just about the economy, stupid. The FuturIcT ‘knowledge accelerator’, the proposal for which has just been submitted to the European Commission’s Flagship Initiatives scheme which seeks to fund visionary research, would address a wide range of environmental, technological and social issues using supercomputer simulations developed by an interdisciplinary team.

The overarching aim is to provide systematic, rational and evidence-based guidance to governmental and international policy-making, free from the ideological biases and wishful thinking typical of current strategies.

Helbing’s confidence in such an approach has been bolstered by his and others’ success in modelling social phenomena ranging from traffic flow in cities to the dynamics of industrial production. Modern computer power makes it possible to simulate such systems using ‘agent-based models’ that look for large-scale patterns and regularities emerging from the interaction of large numbers of individual agents.

The FuturIcT proposal includes the establishment of ‘Crisis Observatories’ that might identify impending problems such as financial crashes, wars and social unrest, disease epidemics, and environmental crises. It would draw on expertise in fields ranging from engineering, law, anthropology and geosciences to physics and mathematics. Crisis Observatories could be operational by 2016, the FuturIcT team says, and by 2022 the programme would incorporate a Living Earth Simulator that couples human social and political activity to the dynamics of the natural planet.

Sceptics may dismiss the idea as a hubristic folly that exaggerates our ability to understand the world we have created. But when we compare the price tag to the money we devote to getting a few humans outside our atmosphere, it could be a far greater folly not to give the idea a chance.


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