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Computers, Simulations and Collective Intelligence Can Help Mitigate Emerging Human Ills,Scientists Say

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 13, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
A group of leading scientists is working to establish a "knowledge accelerator" using modern computational, communication and information technologies to help understand enormous environmental, economic and human challenges that exceed the capacities of even the best individual minds.

The effort is led by Dirk Helbing, a physicist, traffic scientists and sociologist at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Many economists called the world wide financial troubles a scientific and moral failure, and several have recommended large scale research initiatives to be able to understand, predict and mitigate emerging crises.The FuturIcT website (IcT stands for Information and Communication Technologies) describes projects and provided access to informative articles. Mark Buchanan's piece on economic meltdown modeling is especially interesting. As he explains, no war room analysis presently exists that will indicate trouble brewing in the joint economic activities of the banks, governments and hedged funds that makeup the world's largest financial players.

"The need is clearly intense in the social and economic sphere if we want to successfully avoid or mitigate similar crises in the future," Helbing says in a ScienceDaily story. But he also says many problem result from our inability to understand and manage human systems, especially as they relate to interactions with the complex global environment. He adds that out understanding of social ills and human conflict is also surprisingly inadequate.

Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling and a sociologist at the Brookings Institution, says in the story, "This is an experiment we cannot afford NOT do to." The European Commission's Flagship Programme will support the effort with one billlion Euros over 10 year period. Epstein says today's social, economic and environmental issues "dwarf the capacity of any individual's comprehension", and that only a "collective mind" enabled by unprecedented modern technical resources can provide "credible and actionable forecasts" to policy makers.

Virtual social experiments, in which scientists build computer models of human systems that let computer agents behave like people, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Helbing has developed physics-based models that offer insights into human morality and other elements of human behavior.

Some goals for the FuturIcT Knowledge Accelerator are: A Living Earth Simulator, in which as many as 10 billion agents can provide an experimental model of environmental interactions; Crisis Observatories, in which massive data will be mined to human and natural crises, and model for Global System Dynamics and Policy, which will focus on assembling expertise from all branches of science for contributions to future policies. Click here for more information.

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