Back in April, we looked at an ambitious European plan to simulate the entire planet. The idea is to exploit the huge amounts of data generated by financial markets, health records, social media and climate monitoring to model the planet's climate, societies and economy. The vision is that a system like this can help to understand and predict crises before they occur so that governments can take appropriate measures in advance. There are numerous challenges here. Nobody yet has the computing power necessary for such a task, neither are there models that will can accurately model even much smaller systems. But before any of that is possible, researchers must gather the economic, social and technological data needed to feed this machine.
Today, we get a grand tour of this challenge from Dirk Helbing and Stefano Balietti at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Helbing is the driving force behind this project and the man who will lead it if he gets the EUR 1 billion he needs from the European Commission.
It turns out that there are already numerous sources of data that could provide the necessary fuel to power Helbing's Earth Simulator. "In the past, collecting data of human activity has been largely obstructed by fifinancial, technological and ethical issues," say Helbing and Balietti. That is no longer the case.
While good data from social sciences experiments has been hard to come by in the past, researchers are currently swamped by it thanks to a new generation of lab experiments, web experiments and the study of massive multi-player on-line games.
These and other pursuits are now producing massive amounts of data, many of which are freely available on the web.
Of course, one of the dangers from such an approach is that any ethical issues are likely to be swamped by this tidal wave of numbers. This needs to be urgently addressed. While Helbing and colleagues write persuasively about the potential benefits of an Earth Simulator, it's hard to believe they've given the same amount of thought to the potential risks.
So in the interests of stimulating this debate, I'm reproducing here Helbing's list of websites that are potential sources of data for an Earth Simulator. It makes for fascinating, if unnerving, reading:
via Technology Review.