Described as a “knowledge collider,” and now with a pledge of one billion euros from the European Union, the Living Earth Simulator is a new big data and supercomputing project that will attempt to uncover the underlying sociological and psychological laws that underpin human civilization. In the same way that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider smashes together protons to see what happens, the Living Earth Simulator (LES) will gather knowledge from a Planetary Nervous System (PNS — yes, really) to try to predict societal fluctuations such as political unrest, economic bubbles, disease epidemics, and so on.
Orchestrated by ICT, which is basically a consortium of preeminent scientists, computer science centers around the world, and high-power computing (HPC) installations, the Living Earth Simulator hopes to correlate huge amounts of data — including real-time sources such as Twitter and web news — and extant, but separate approaches currently being used by other institutions, into a big melting pot of information. To put it into scientific terms, the LES will analyze techno-socio-economic-environmental (!) systems. From this, FuturICT hopes to reveal the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society, rather than the explicit, far-removed-from-reality bills and acts that lawmakers inexorably enact.
The scale of the LES, when it’s complete, will be huge. It is hoped that supercomputing centers all over the world will chip in with CPU time, and data will be corralled from existing projects and a new Global Participatory Platform, which is basically open data on a worldwide scale. The project also has commercial backing from Microsoft Research, IBM, Yahoo Research, and others. All told, the system will create useful knowledge in the fields of energy, networks and communication, economics, crime and corruption, migration, health, and crisis management.
The timing of EU’s billion-euro grant is telling, too. As you probably know, the European Union is struggling to keep the plates spinning, and the LES, rather handily, will probably be the most accurate predictor of economic stability in the world. Beyond money, though, it is hoped that the LES and PNS can finally tell us why humans do things, like watch a specific TV show, buy a useless gadget, or start a revolution.
Looking at the larger picture, the Living Earth Simulator is really an admission that we know more about the physical universe than the social. We can predict with startling accuracy whether an asteroid will hit Earth, but we know scant little about how society might actually react to an extinction-level event. We plough billions of dollars into studying the effects and extent of climate change, but what if understood enough of the psychology and sociology behind human nature to actually change our behavior?