New EU initiative puts social supercomputing in spotlight
One of the biggest challenges facing Europeans today is how to better understand social mechanisms and the changes that affect them - from being able to deal with financial and economic volatility, to addressing climate change and other environmental crises. Rising to meet this challenge head on is FUTURICT ('Future information and communication technologies (ICT) knowledge accelerator'), an initiative backed by the European Commission's Flagship Programme supporting extensive, visionary research initiatives to determine ICT's role in society. The Flagship Programme has received EUR 1 billion in funding. Under FUTURICT comes the 'Living Earth Simulator', where scientists will use the largest supercomputers to simulate life on our planet. Emphasis will be placed on our world's societies, financial systems and economies. Supercomputers give scientists the tools they need to investigate complex socio-economic problems. While supercomputers have been mostly used by engineers, physicists and biologists, these advanced machines are finally making their way into the world of economics and the social sciences. They are now being used for their ability to perform economic and social analyses, and in particular for exploring basic human processes. Transport Engineering Professor Kay Axhausen at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zürich) in Switzerland, for example, is using supercomputers to simulate the travel activities of Swiss residents in order to predict and ease traffic congestion. In another study, researchers working at ETH Zürich's Competence Center for Coping with Crises in Complex Socio-Economic Systems (CCSS) are mining financial data to uncover vulnerabilities in complex networks and risky bubbles in stock and housing markets, among other things. CCSS researcher Lars-Erik Cederman, meanwhile, is investigating the origin of global conflict with the help of large-scale computer models. Professor Cederman is also setting up an extensive database to record the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in conflict-stricken countries including Iraq. The CCSS team has also used simulations to determine how social cohesion and cooperation have succeeded in becoming key components in our lives. They have found alarmingly vulnerable levels in 'the crust of civilisation', however. Their simulations have uncovered common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in myriad events. The CCSS is the majority shareholder of ETH Zürich's Brutus supercomputing cluster that ranks 88th in the world's fastest computer standing, and 10th in Europe. Ultimately, the FUTURICT project will pool together experts' findings and observations to simulate the entire world. The FUTURICT partners will collect and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes at never before seen levels. The data obtained will be protected and not misused thanks to FUTURICT's ethics committee. Furthermore, while the partners will identify statistical interdependencies when people work together, they will not visualise or track individual behaviour. FUTURICT also promotes the integration between research institutions in the EU and abroad; linking up diverse scientific disciplines and stakeholders from academia, business, governance and the public media; as well as scientists and laypersons; and people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds, gender, religion and age. The FUTURICT consortium plans to create and launch crises observatories and decision-support systems for business leaders and policymakers. 'Such observatories would detect advance warning signs of many different kinds of emerging problems including large-scale congestion, financial instabilities, the spreading of diseases, environmental change, resource shortages and social conflicts,' explained ETH Zürich's Professor Dirk Helbing, a key representative of the FUTURICT initiative. 'The FUTURICT Flagship will create interactive, multi-purpose modelling, exploration, and systems design tools that use the best combination of human and machine intelligence,' FUTURICT partners write. 'Experts will be able to choose among the variables, parameters, model variants, simulation scenarios, hypotheses to be explored, and system designs proposed by this semi-automated tool (the 'knowledge accelerator'). It will stimulate creatively and extend the limits of imagination.'