By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, CA, August 13th, 2012 - - Imagine a simulator capable of computing the ultimate outcome of all of Earth’s myriad messes – disease propagation, political upheaval, global warming and economic instability, to name a few. A European sociologist has done just that and has asked the European Union for 1 billion Euros so he can build it.
Similar to a super particle collider used to better understand the laws of physics, the living Earth simulator would be a type of “large knowledge collider” that ties together the loose ends of social life on Earth.
The brainchild of Swiss social scientist Dirk Helbing, the simulator will “simulate everything we know, combining different threads of research on human and natural worlds,” UCI professor Peter Krapp told a rapt audience at last week’s SURF-IT lunchtime seminar series event.
Krapp’s mission was to illuminate the history of simulation in order to raise the question: is such a goal actually feasible? “What’s at stake here,” he explained, “is a way to unify academic research efforts; to make tractable the messy problems that come about when you’re not dealing with a well-defined, small area – but human, manmade, mass social problems.”
From early tabletop war games to today’s online massively multiplayer games, simulation has played an increasingly important role in training, education and now, entertainment.
The advancement of numerical computation capabilities in the decades since the 1940s helped tremendously. “The all-out effort in the Second World War required much more powerful, faster calculations,” he told the audience, to aid in decision-making, ballistics and ultimately construction of the nuclear bomb. “Calculating by hand with an analog calculator was not fast enough or good enough.”
Despite obvious advantages, Krapp said this computing proficiency had some drawbacks in the world of simulations. Military and policy advisors, no longer trained in tabletop and floor games, were losing the ability to view the “big picture.” In addition, many in positions of power were skeptical of computer-based modeling and simulation.
Flight simulators did benefit, though. An analog “Airplane Stability and Control Analyzer” was converted to a digital format and built out into an early warning system. Later, it was rebuilt again as SAGE (Semiautomatic Ground Environment), at the time the largest computer ever constructed. SAGE served as an aircraft warning system, displaying interloping vehicles as blips that intercept-technicians could shoot down with light guns, not unlike future video gamers would do.
The next strand in the development of computer simulation was the discovery that the method could be applied to any system, large or small. From molecular systems to cosmology, computer simulations began changing our understanding of the world.
That insight, Krapp said, created a shift from equation-based modeling to agent-based modeling, in which specific interactions were ascribed to different parts of the system. Data was put into feedback loops, and systems could automatically be regulated at optimum levels. Now it was possible to build control panels that could display information in near-real time.
The next step in the progression, he said, was the ability to build scenarios which led to the birth of the consulting industry. “Many a corporation now is run on scenarios. They don’t read your palm but they build models and make predictions.”
Scenario-building surged in the 1960s. Buckminster Fuller worked to create a world game of global simulation, and others followed suit. The most recent entry in that category, Fate of the World, is a strategy game launched two years ago with the same goals.
Today, the government’s Technical Support Working Group supports branches of the military and other government departments. The armed forces use simulation centers to train and strategize. Computer gaming and education also utilize advances in simulation.
“So these are the strands that come together in trying to understand what Helbing is talking about,” Krapp summarized. “He wants to identify the grand challenges from a global perspective and bring these things together in a crisis observatory, where, he claims, the computer system … could predict infectious disease outbreaks, pinpoint ways to combat climate change and even foresee financial crisis.”
The audience wasn’t completely convinced. “I don’t see it happening; sorry to say that,” a SURF-IT student researcher said.
“Don’t underestimate what is possible,” Krapp responded, mentioning that science fiction writers referenced a nuclear bomb about three decades before physicists started working seriously on it.
“We do have a lot of data mining going on and we do have a lot of computer power. We could put them to some collective use … in the same way that people in the 1940s put applied math and theoretical physics to use.
“It’s not totally implausible.”