Sunday, September 25, 2011

FuturICT's Crisis Observatory 3: Artificial Global Nervous System

How is top-down control the enemy of predictive systems?
Resilient Self-Control
Dr. Helbing states that "...most information and communication systems are not designed and tested for the collective behavior that result from the interaction of their components."  The very factor that makes them so useful - their complex interconnectedness is what causes their vulnerability if not designed correctly.

Helbing cites a classic example of this complexity problem - traffic jams.
Many crises result from domino or cascading effects, as do traffic jams. In fact, Urban traffic flows are an illustrative example for a strongly coupled system. Traffic flows from different origins to different destinations strongly influence each other. Classical traffic light control is based on supercomputing centers, which collect flow measurements from many intersections and implement the determined control decisions in a top-down fashion. As the decision cannot be optimized in real time (because there are too many alternative control options), one adapts a solution, which is optimal for, say, the typical Monday morning or the time after a soccer match. However, the average situation never occurs, since the variability of the flows from one red phase to another is high. Hence, the traffic light control is far from optimal.
So how can this problem be solved?  FuturICT's system provides an answer to this question. 
A better approach controls traffic flows bottom-up (or combines top-down and bottom-up elements in a suitable way), letting traffic lights flexibly respond to the actual traffic situation. When measuring not only the outflows from road sections, but also the inflows, a short-term anticipation of platoons of vehicles becomes possible. This allows the traffic lights to turn green when vehicle platoons arrive. It is interesting to note that a high system performance is not reached, when each traffic intersection just implements the best possible local control, as Adam Smith’s principle may suggest. However, everyone profits if neighboring intersections coordinate each other through short-term flow anticipation: car drivers, users of public transport, bikers, pedestrians, and the environment as well. This example illustrates how complex, largely variable and hardly predictable systems can be made more resilient: by a combination of real-time measurement, short-term anticipation, self-control, and the interruption of cascading effects (here: the avoidance of spill-over effects). As a result, crises can be prevented or mitigated, and scarce resources (in the above case: space and time) can be used more efficiently.
We include a short video of what has been called a shockwave traffic jam or phantom traffic jam.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

"If a single star is a bit of information, there's a galaxy of info for every person on Earth. That's according to the first-ever inventory of the world's capacity to store, communicate and compute information." Martin Hilbert University of Southern California

Explosive Growth of Data
ICT systems (Information & Communication Technology) are even more critical than traffic lights systems.  Yet they suffer from the same weakness in design, which might allow them to malfunction at critical times.  That there has been immense growth in ICT systems worldwide is obvious to all.  Most of this data is useless to people, since it arrives to quickly and is not a coherent whole.  But, just in case one wishes facts, we shall provide them.1

The explosive growth is startling.  Dr. Martin Hilbert, professor at the University of Southern California explains:

  1. The total storage space in 2007, was equivalent to 61 CD-ROMS for every person on Earth (404 billion CD-ROMS).  
  2. The stack of CDs could easily reach the moon from Earth.  
  3. This exceeds the famed Library of Alexandria by 80 times.  
  4. This information could easily cover the entire area of the United States or China with thirteen layers of books!  
  5. Every person receives the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day!  
  6. Just in telecommunications alone, every person on Earth sends out an equivalent of 6 newspapers per day.
  7. Sending one double-printed newspaper sheet per "pigeon post" bird, would require an army of 4 times the entire global bird population per day working for us.
  8. The combined computational power of the world, is 25,000 times more powerful than IBM's supercomputer Watson that won the Jeopardy show in 2011.
  9. With projections done back in 2007, the Watson supercomputer will only equal 0.001% of the world's computational power.
  10. 2002 could be considered the beginning of the digital age - the first year worldwide digital storage capacity overtook total analog capacity. As of 2007, almost 94 percent of our memory is in digital form. 

via: Wall Street Journal
click to enlarge

click to enlarge via: Hilbert

click to enlarge via: Hilbert

So how can we master this huge amount of information?  We agree with Helbing that this question is first and most basic question of the 21st century.
The challenges of the 21st century require the development of a new kind of science: the science of multi-level complex systems. This new science should allow us to understand not only the impact of one system component on another and the resulting links between micro-level interactions and macro behaviors. But we also need to understand the complex interdependencies between the different institutions, infrastructures and networks on which our society is built.
click to enlarge via: Helbing
We include a short video featuring Professor Helbing explaining the vision of FuturICT.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

FuturICT- Dirk Helbing from FuturICT on Vimeo.

In our next installment in this series, we shall cover the way forward.

1. Hilbert, M., & L√≥pez, P. (2011). The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information. Science, 332(6), 60–. doi:10.1126/science.1200970

2. Humankind can store 295 exabytes of data: Study. (2011, Feb 11). The Hindustan Times, pp. n/a.

3. Helbing, D. (Ed.). (n.d.). FuturICT – A Knowledge Accelerator to Explore and Manage Our Future in a Strongly Connected World . (D. Helbing, Ed.).

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