Monday, December 5, 2011

Ready for the supercomputer that can predict the future (even the next recession) as EU prepares £900m funding

Plan: The man behind the supercomputer, Professor Dirk Helbing, billed the machine as 'the nervous system for the entire planet'
Plan: The man behind the supercomputer, Professor Dirk Helbing, billed the machine as 'the nervous system for the entire planet'

A £900million scheme to produce a computer system which could predict the next financial crisis has been backed by leading scientists.

The Living Earth Simulator Project (LES) aims to 'simulate everything' on the planet, using anything from tweets to government statistics to map out social trends and predict the next economic crisis.

Using vasts reams of data fed into the internet, trends can be spotted by analysing information with 'the world's most powerful computers'.

The man behind the idea has billed it as a 'nervous system for the planet', while academics have backed it as a replacement for current outdated economic models.

Professor Dirk Helbing, one of the leaders of the project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told the Sunday Times: 'The idea is to gather live information from a huge range of sources and then analyse it using the world's most powerful computers.

'Many problems we have today - including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading - are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work.

Professor Helbing said the LES would be able to predict the spread of infectious disease such as Swine Flu, identify methods for tackling climate change and even spot an impending financial crisis.

It would be filled with huge swathes of data, which would be assembled as-yet-unbuilt supercomputer hardware capable of data analysis on a mammoth scale.

Around 30 leading computer science centres worldwide have already pledged their support for the supercomputer, including three in Britain.

Oxford University, University College London (UCL) and Edinburgh University have also formed the FuturICT consortium to help push ahead with plans for the project.

The European Commission has also put the Living Earth Simulator at the top of its shortlist for £900m in funding.

However, the plans to recreate the entire world in a complex computer system have drawn criticism from some science experts who see the project as too ambitious and unrealistic.

Iain Begg, professor of European Studies at the London School of Economics, told the Sunday Times: 'The complexity of the world is simply too great. We cannot even model the weather for more than a few days.

'The social domain, people's behaviour, is even harder to analyse, because social trends are not just complex, they also change with time.

'We have to be sceptical as to whether even the most powerful computers could cope with it.'

The current economic crisis and eurozone meltdown was not foreseen by the financial models which most policy-makers use.

But the Living Earth Simulator Project would pre-empt such a disaster, which is why it has been given support by the European Commission.

Supporters of the supercomputer idea say the need to forecast another worldwide economic crisis is greater than ever.

Steven Bishop, professor of non-linear dynamics at UCL's mathematics department, who is a key figure in the Living Earth Simulator project, said: 'The modern banking system may have more disasters waiting to happen but they are buried in complexity, just as happened with the crisis of sub-prime mortgages.

'We would hope to find the precursors of instability and disasters and maybe do that in time for politicians to stop them happening.'

The only time a similarly ambitious computer scheme has been dreamt up was in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where the satirically-created Deep Thought spent 7.5million years pondering the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

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