Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks

I badly wanted a copy of SimEarth when it was released, but the clunky old 8086 passed down to me by my father (who’d recently splashed out on a 386DX with math co-processor, no less) couldn’t run it.

I’m pretty positive that no machine I (or anyone else unattached to a well-funded research organisation) could afford will be able to run the Living Earth Simulator, either [via MetaFilter]:

In the past, supercomputers have been used mainly in physics or biology, or for difficult engineering problems such as the construction of new aircrafts. But now they are increasingly being used for social and economic analyses, even of the most fundamental human processes. At the CCSS, for example, Lars-Erik Cederman uses large-scale computer models to study the origin of international conflict, and is creating a large database documenting the geographic interdependencies of civil violence and wars in countries such as the former Yugoslavia or Iraq. In sociology, simulations at the CCSS have explored the conditions under which cooperation and solidarity can thrive in societies. They show that the crust of civilization is disturbingly vulnerable. These simulations reveal common patterns behind breakdowns of social order in events as diverse as the war in former Yugoslavia, lootings after earthquakes or other natural disasters, or the recent violent demonstrations in Greece.


Complementary to large-scale computer simulations, the FuturIcT project also aims to gather and organise data on social, economic and environmental processes on an unprecedented scale, especially by augmenting the results of field studies and laboratory experiments with the overwhelming flood of data now resulting from the world wide web or massive multi-player online worlds such as Second Life. Furthermore, the rapid emergence of vast networks of distributed sensors will make data available on an almost unimaginable scale for direct use in computer simulations. At the same time, an ethics committee and targeted research will ensure that these data will be explored in privacy-respecting ways and not misused. The goal is to identify statistical interdependencies when many people interact, but not to track or predict individual behaviour.

In plain English: these people want to build a simulation of the entire planet that takes into account almost every type of data we can shove into it, in the hope that we can use said data to foresee (and perhaps forestall) the next big disaster on the timeline – be it environmental, economic, biological (ZOMFG bird/pig flu!) or social. No idea if it’s feasible (though it doesn’t sound too ridiculous), but it’s surely ambitious, and more than a little bit awesome.

The rational part of me understands that such a simulation would consist of billions of complex calculations running through an array of supercomputer processors (or maybe networked desktop machines running something like the SETI@home software), and wouldn’t be very exciting to simply sit and watch. The less rational part of me that grew up watching James Bond movies really hopes that – somewhere – there’ll be a big interface screen with a spinning globe on it, with which I could spend the rest of my life fiddling around, cackling like some insane minor Moorcockean deity.

Of course, it’s always worth remembering that we could actually be living in an incredibly complex computer simulation already

3 thoughts on “Living Earth Simulator: super-detailed simulation of environment, economies, societies, kitchen sinks”

  1. Just one word: psychohistory! 🙂
    More seriously, I think that the most likely use for such a model (or for a suitably doctored version of it) will be to act as a post hoc justification for serious blunders of governments or police/military forces: “See? We had to do *that* because otherwise *this* would have happened!”.

  2. Just another word: Chaos Theory…;-)

    It means that certain systems cannot be ‘predicted’ — or calculated beyond a very short period — due to a very high sensitivity to initial conditions. Like the weather: beyond a couple of days the system is so sensitive to initial conditions that the best supercomputers can’t reliably predict it beyond a few days (weeks at most).

    Those calculations increase exponentialy over time: so in order to predict the weather for months ahead, the computer simulations need to increase with orders of magnitude that Moore’s Law can never, ever keep up with.

    Not all systems are chaotic, but enough of them are (I suspect) that no “Living Earth Simulator” can keep up with the *real* changes. That’s also why I don’t believe in the ‘we’re-living-in-a-huge-computer-simulation’ argument: too many chaotic systems throwing predictions astray, hence not worth the effort.

    In other words: the Universe may be predictable enough to make sense, but may be too unpredictable for everything to be predetermined. Thus, there is enough leeway for free will, and quite possibly for life (and such an abstract idea as ‘free will’ to evolve), but not enough leeway for certain entities using their ‘free will’ to completely shape the world (Universe) to their wishes.

    In other words, a complex Universe where humans (or other intelligences) have a certain range of free will to choose, but not unlimited options (such as being *absolute* villians/dictators).

    I can live with that, with the optimistic option that, as human intelligence increases, we will be — slowly, but inevitably — make the choices that ensure the long time prosperity of the species.

    Many of you will disagree, but the long term trend is still UP.

    Even if ZOMG bird/pig flu (which weren’t *quite* as horrible as predicted), BP oil disaster (which *is* horrible) and other disasters get all the headline attention (hint: newspapers want to sell editions/draw online eyeballs) instead of all the good developments that keep happening all the time (improved medicine/health care that improves average life spans worldwide and reduces child deaths worldwide; less poverty overall and more internet access worldwide leading to more *opportunities* worldwide (Bangladeshi bicycle ladies; the African Cheeatah generation, microcredit financing; etc.).

    No simulator will ever keep up with that (which I think is a good thing), and my prediction is that Armageddon, contrary to what many people like to think, will not happen in the near future (say, 50 years ahead).

    Anybody willing to take a bet?

  3. To Jetse: the ‘we’re-living-in-a-huge-computer-simulation’ argument is not really touched by the fact that many systems are chaotic. In fact such a world simulation would not need to compute the internal workings of such systems at all. The hypothetical mega-processor running the world simulation would simply need to choose the behaviour of such (simulated, as everything else) chaotic systems with sufficient randomness to make them actually unpredictable, while maintaining basic consistency.
    In other words, and only half (well, much less than half) seriously: the existence of “chaos” could be a clue to the fact that we indeed *live* in a simulation. If we can’t effectively predict the behaviour of some parts of the world is because there are *no* simple models at the core of those parts, only random choices. When they want to have a break, the people (?) running the simulation focus their monitors on the puzzled (simulated) Earth scientists and laugh their heads (?) off! 🙂

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