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.

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