Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

A $1.2bn Simulation of Civilization

An ambitious European project wants to build super-real simulations to help predict the future.

  • August 14, 2012

Ever wish you could turn back the clock and try a day, week, or year over again? Plans afoot in Switzerland to build a more detailed simulation of the globe’s environment, societies, and economies than ever before could make that possible. Professor Dirk Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich wants to build a “living earth simulator” to probe the kind of dangerous cascading effects that he believes threaten financial markets, power grids and other complex systems that modern life relies upon. He has a good chance at getting €1bn ($1.2bn) of EU research funding to build it, as co-leader of one of six projects competing for two huge research grants.

Helbing put it like this when I saw him make his pitch in San Francisco:

“For 30 years we have globalized and pushed for technological revolutions but we have not created the systems science to understand what we have created.”

Helbing has spent his career studying how complex, intelligent and even dangerous behaviors can emerge from the simple actions of collectives such as people in a crowd, or cars on the road. He’s now convinced that such effects operate at larger, more dangerous scales, too. He cites the 2006 power cuts that swept Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy after a single line in Germany was switched off; and the “flash crash” that, in 2010, wiped around $600bn off the Dow Jones index within minutes.

If Helbing’s team gets the money, they’ll spend it on a giant computing resource that simulates our global-scale complex systems, and acts as something as an oracle of cascading effects. He envisions academics, governments and other organizations turning to it for advice, in a similar way to a hiker checking the weather forecast. The predictions won’t be perfect, but actionable enough to avoid the worst dangers.

That proposal has attracted interest beyond just academics. Helbing told me that defense contractors were among the first to contact him, but that he’s committed to making the project an open resource. That’s a laudable goal, but if this approach is really that promising it seems likely Helbing’s won’t be the only large-scale simulator at work.

The two projects that win a chunk of the EU’s megafund will be announced later this year, and start work in 2013.

Learn from the humans leading the way in intelligent machines at EmTech Next. Register Today!
June 11-12, 2019
Cambridge, MA

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

    The MIT Technology Review App

  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

  • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.