Friday, September 23, 2011

FuturICT's Crisis Observatory: A Computer Model Of The Entire World 2

We continue with FuturICT's Living Earth Simulator.

The visionaries at FuturICT have seen a progression of breakthroughs, from the 20th century until now, a series of epochs in which certain areas of science made tremendous strides.

First, was the era of physical innovations, with physics, leading the way.  Next, was the biological revolution with our understanding of DNA.  Third, the computer age, with the ability to compute and store vast amounts of information.  The next era they see on the horizon is the social and socio-inspired innovations.  This is where FuturICT comes in.  To us, the thesis is clear - in this era of increasing acceleration of information and change, we need modern tools that change data into knowledge.  Thus FuturICT has coined their knowledge accelerator.  Helbing elucidates the point,1
Globalization and technological change have made the world a different place. This has created or intensified a number of serious problems, such as international conflict and world-wide terrorism, global financial and economic crises, political instabilities and revolutions, the quick spreading of diseases, global environmental change, disruptions of international supply chains, organized crime and increased cyber risks.
We really as a society, have no choice in the matter.  The very interconnectedness of our society necessitates an interconnectedness in our monitoring of what is happening in the world.  And it will be done by someone.  The wealth of data that is just lying there waiting to be utilized as powerful information will not be left unexplored.  It must not be done by private corporations.  It must be open data to all - done by the people.  As Helbing states, "...we need to prevent private monopolies of socio-economic data..." He elaborates, " is time to make a federated and open Big Science effort akin to the Human Genome Project."  But how can this be done?  The key to us and to Dr. Helbing is to understand complex systems.

Complexity Theory
"Everybody sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences." Robert Louis Stevenson
When systems, whether in nature, or in man-made systems, become more complex and interconnected, their behavior changes.  This is the essence of complex view of the world.  Helbing has identified nine qualities of complex systems.

  1. The dynamics of very connected systems when positive feedback is received speeds up.
  2. Extreme events When we use this term we mean it in the normal sense - a dramatic event which will have significant implications. occur more often and can impact the whole system.*
  3. The abundance of self-organization and strong correlations between systems
  4. The behavior of the system appear illogical and unwanted results or side effects are typical.
  5. Behavior of the system is hard to predict, and planning for the future may be impossible.
  6. External control is very limited.
  7. Even the most powerful computers cannot perform an optimization of the system behavior in real time, as the number of interacting system elements is too large.
  8. The competition for limited resources implies reduced backups in the system and a larger vulnerability to random failures or external shocks.
  9. The loss of predictability and control lead to an erosion of trust in private and public institutions, which in turn can lead to social, political, or economic destabilization.
These qualities destroy the idea that these kinds of systems can be controlled from the top-down.  So we restate our question.  How can anything be known in such complex systems?  Helbing explains:
Rather than controlling the single system elements individually, it becomes crucial to stimulate a favorable kind of self-organization in the whole system by establishing suitable interaction rules (the `rules of the game’). Bottom-up elements allow for greater flexibility, efficiency, and resilience of the system.
In case some (perhaps rightly so), fear that such a computer model would inhibit or suppress individual freedoms, they can rest more at peace in this regard.
FuturICT is not interested in tracking individual behavior or gathering data on individual actions. Its aim is to understand the macroscopic and statistical interdependencies within the highly complex systems on which we all depend.
Helbing elaborates further,
The FuturICT project will have a strong research focus on ethical issues, and is committed to informing the public about the use of socio-economic data. For example, FuturICT will promote the development of a Web of Trust and of privacy-respecting data mining technologies that give users control over their data. It will take the strongest possible measures to prevent and counter-act the misuse of data and the Internet. More broadly, the project will seek public involvement to build and sustain confidence in its research objectives.
Helbing is not the only one thinking and working on complexity systems.  Indeed, this is the major question in just about all branches of science.  Erik Van den broecke explains some of the intricacies of complexity theory especially in the context of world financial markets.
Complexity theory states that nodes do not connect randomly. A new node prefers to connect with existing nodes that are well connected. As a result, some nodes become more important than others. In the financial system the nodes or agents are the different banks. Some banks indeed are better connected then others. 
A bubble is created when suddenly one or some agents become super connected. The bubble bursts if one of the super connected agents is hit by a event that suddenly changes its reputation or role in the network. Because of the super connectedness the initially small event is enforced and cascaded trough the network, causing the burst.
We include a lengthy video/lecture, by John D. Sterman, from the MIT Sloan School of Management, about the connection between climate change and healthcare.  To most, this would seem to be remotely connected.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

In our next installment, we shall continue with the details of this proposal and large-scale endeavor by FuturICT.  We shall also continue in complexity theory and its consequences.

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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