Humanity faces enormous challenges ranging from financial and economic instability to environmental destruction and climate change, all linked directly to our inability to manage -- and often even to understand the nature of -- our collective activities and their consequences.
Now a diverse group of leading scientists has unveiled an extraordinary plan to meet these challenges through a project inspired by historic enterprises such as the Apollo Project. Their ambitious proposal aims to stimulate an urgent scientific effort of unprecedented scope focused on building a more powerful and accurate science of human systems and their interaction with the global environment. Their efforts will exploit the revolutionary scientific potential of modern computational, communication, and information technologies, backed up by theoretical analysis.
The initiative to establish a "FuturIcT knowledge accelerator" (where ICT stands for information and communication technologies) has been coordinated by a team of scientists led by physicist, traffic scientist, and sociologist Dirk Helbing of ETH Zurich. The proposal was submitted for the European Commission's Flagship Programme, which seeks to support ambitious large-scale, visionary research initiatives with 1 billion EUR in funding over ten years. While 1 billion EUR sounds much, it is actually little compared to the losses from the financial crises and the money invested into elementary particle and astro-physics, nanoscience, gene technology, systems biology, or nuclear fusion research. The project aims to assemble expertise across the whole spectrum of science -- from physics, computer science, environmental science and economics through psychology, ecology and sociology -- to develop supercomputing facilities and large-scale laboratories for a new kind of data-rich social science on which intelligent future policies can be based.
Most profound scientific initiatives of the 21st century
Rarely does a scientific proposal elicit such positive immediate reaction. Computer scientist and mathematician Jeffrey Johnson, President of the European Complex Systems Society, suggests that the project will be "one of the most profound scientific initiatives of the 21st century." The proposal has also drawn the interest of legendary international financier and philanthropist George Soros, who, in a letter of support, writes that the project will make a significant contribution to understanding "the formidable issues of governance, climate change, and sustainable economic balance that we are all faced with in coming decades."
The complexity of today's social, economic and environmental issues, says social scientist Joshua Epstein of the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, "dwarfs the capacity of any individual's comprehension." He underlines that only a "collective mind" enabled by resources gathered on an unprecedented scale, as this project envisions, will be able to make "credible and actionable forecasts" useful to policy makers."This is an experiment," says Epstein, "that we cannot afford NOT to do."
Fundamental understanding of social problems
The timeliness of this ambitious effort, Helbing says, has been made clear by a number of events and trends. The recent financial crisis revealed the spectacular inability of modern economic and financial science to predict looming financial instabilities, or even to foresee that such an event was possible. Many economists, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, have since suggested that economic science has itself suffered a shocking scientific and moral failure. In the aftermath, scientists around the globe call for a large-scale research initiative on socio-economic and environmental issues, often envisioned as a Apollo-, Manhattan-, or CERN-like project, to study the way our living planet works while including the ever important, yet hard to understand, human component. "The need is clearly intense in the social and economic sphere," says Helbing, "if we want to successfully avoid or mitigate similar crises in the future."
But in addition to current economic and financial distress, many other looming problems stem from our inability to understand and manage human systems, especially in interaction with the complex global environment. Global efforts to respond to climate change and environmental destruction have made little headway in finding any practical solutions. Our fundamental understanding of social problems, such as human conflict, is still surprisingly limited. Given the impressive overall progress of science, the people behind this proposal ask, couldn't we do much better by combining the knowledge of different fields?
Communication technologies have begun transforming social science
In fact, there is a third important and entirely positive reason, Helbing suggests, why a project of this scope should be pushed forward right now. In the past decade or so, modern information and communication technologies -- especially through the Internet, World Wide Web and mobile communications -- have begun transforming social science into a far more quantitative, and even predictive, science. A noted recent study used the web to probe the decision making behaviour of more than 140,000 people, while another mined social networking sites such as Facebook to study how people adopt new ideas, basing their analyses on hundreds of millions of data points. Almost overnight, the study of human behaviour and social interactions has gone from a data poor to a data rich field that is drowning in data.
Today's social scientists also have an unprecedented means to simulate complex social systems using computers. No human mind is smart enough to foresee what might happen when you make changes in systems involving ten, a hundred, or a million people. The growing web of causes and effects overwhelms the power of even the greatest human mind to foresee what might come out. But social scientists have learned to augment the power of their minds with computing technology, building models of social systems -- a community, a company, a market, etc. -- in which computer agents act like people, make decisions as people do, learn and adapt. In this way, a promising new branch of social science has emerged based on doing "virtual" social experiments. Such techniques have already had a number of impressive successes.
Hence, Helbing says, the proposal aims to capitalise on the new scientific possibilities which, if pursued energetically, should make it possible to understand human systems more precisely and on a larger scale than ever before, especially in those areas directly relevant to our most pressing challenges. "The idea is to spend 100 million EUR per year for ten years to develop new science and technology that will save hundreds of times as much by avoiding or mitigating future crises and catastrophes."
Target goals of the FuturIcT Knowledge Accelerator
A Living Earth Simulator. The development of systems able to simulate global-scale systems involving the interactions of up to 10 billion agents providing an experimental system on which whole Earth explorations would be possible.
Crisis Observatories. The development of laboratories running massive data mining and computing systems to detect possible crises, such as bubbles or crashes in financial or housing markets, gain advance warning of critical shortages in, say, oil, water, or food, develop ways to identify potential wars and social unrest, emerging epidemics, environmental instabilities and so on.
Global System Dynamics and Policy: Another aspect of the project will necessarily focus on the difficult issue of how information coming out of the crisis observatories or other data-intensive centres for social science can be made most helpful to decision makers.
These few topics only begin to illustrate the diverse range of ambitious goals articulated in the proposal, which is available in full at: http://www.futurict.eu
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