A project to simulate everything

What if you could simulate everything taking place on Earth, by encapsulating forces in both the human and physical worlds? Then you would have a Living Earth Simulator.

Within the next few years, scientists are expected to intensify collaboration on what sounds like the most complicated computer simulation the world has ever seen: a meta-analysis of everything from global weather patterns and international financial transactions to local traffic. This project is being called the Living Earth Simulator, or LES.

Its goal is no less than advancing the scientific understanding of what is taking place on the planet, by encapsulating both the human actions that shape societies and the environmental forces that define the physical world.

Dr. Helbing of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology chairs the FuturICT project, whose homepage says it intends to “unify hundreds of the best scientists in Europe in a 10-year 1-billion-EUR program to explore social life on Earth and everything it relates to.” That’s LES: a project to simulate everything. Helbing said that, just as physics has super particle colliders for studying the universe’s most fundamental bits of matter (e.g., Large Hadron Collider), so other branches of science need a “knowledge collider” to combine, in a powerful way, different threads of research on the human and natural worlds. Dr. Helbing explained:

“Many problems we have today – including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading – are related to human behavior, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work.”

This is a sentiment echoed in a recent conversation I had with Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, by the way. As we all know, the world has many problems caused by humans, but, Ehrlich said, for the most part we don’t know how to solve the problems, in part because the way in which humans collectively work remains mysterious.

Dr. Helbing claims that the computer system, once assembled, could predict infectious disease outbreaks, pinpoint specific ways to combat climate change, and even foresee financial crises. Lofty ambitions! How would such a colossal system work? The BBC wrote:

For a start, [LES] would need to be populated by data – lots of it – covering the entire gamut of activity on the planet, says Dr Helbing. It would also be powered by an assembly of yet-to-be-built supercomputers capable of carrying out number-crunching on a mammoth scale. Although the hardware has not yet been built, much of the data is already being generated, he says. For example, the Planetary Skin project, led by U.S. space agency NASA, will see the creation of a vast sensor network collecting climate data from air, land, sea and space. In addition, Dr Helbing and his team have already identified more than 70 online data sources they believe can be used including Wikipedia, Google Maps and the UK government’s data repository Data.gov.uk.

Helbing’s plan – expected to cost 1 billion euros, all footed by the European Commission – is to have the Living Earth Simulator up and running by 2022. Or, to paraphrase the singer Bjork, by the time we stop waiting.

Beth Lebwohl