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.
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…