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 focussed on building a more powerful and accurate science of human systems and their interaction with the global environment.
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.
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
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
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 .
The proposed project involves more than 200 scientists from over 50 universities and institutions including ETH Zurich, Cambridge University, University College London-UCL, Oxford University, Imperial College, Politecnico di Torino, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, EPFL, La Sapienza University of Rome, University and TU Munich, Potsdam Institute of Climate Research, Central European University, King’s College London, London Business School, Warsaw University of Technology, and Open University, to mention only a few. A wide range of science organizations and George Soros have written letters in support for the initiative.
The FuturIcT initiative now seeks collaborations with business and industry, and support by foundations.Contact:
Franziska Schmid | idw
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