Living Earth Simulator to model social world

Here is an interesting project, the Living Earth Simulator, that hopes to take a lot of data and come to conclusions about social life:

Described as a “knowledge collider,” and now with a pledge of one billion euros from the European Union, the Living Earth Simulator is a new big data and supercomputing project that will attempt to uncover the underlying sociological and psychological laws that underpin human civilization. In the same way that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider smashes together protons to see what happens, the Living Earth Simulator (LES) will gather knowledge from a Planetary Nervous System (PNS — yes, really) to try to predict societal fluctuations such as political unrest, economic bubbles, disease epidemics, and so on.

Orchestrated by FuturICT, which is basically a consortium of preeminent scientists, computer science centers around the world, and high-power computing (HPC) installations, the Living Earth Simulator hopes to correlate huge amounts of data — including real-time sources such as Twitter and web news — and extant, but separate approaches currently being used by other institutions, into a big melting pot of information. To put it into scientific terms, the LES will analyze techno-socio-economic-environmental (!) systems. From this, FuturICT hopes to reveal the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society, rather than the explicit, far-removed-from-reality bills and acts that lawmakers inexorably enact…

The timing of EU’s billion-euro grant is telling, too. As you probably know, the European Union is struggling to keep the plates spinning, and the LES, rather handily, will probably be the most accurate predictor of economic stability in the world. Beyond money, though, it is hoped that the LES and PNS can finally tell us why humans do things, like watch a specific TV show, buy a useless gadget, or start a revolution.

Looking at the larger picture, the Living Earth Simulator is really an admission that we know more about the physical universe than the social. We can predict with startling accuracy whether an asteroid will hit Earth, but we know scant little about how society might actually react to an extinction-level event. We plough billions of dollars into studying the effects and extent of climate change, but what if understood enough of the psychology and sociology behind human nature to actually change our behavior?

I don’t know about the prospects of such a project but if the BBC is reporting on it, perhaps it has a future.

A couple of statements in the description above intrigue me:

1. The simulator will help uncover “the tacit agreements and hidden laws that actually govern society.” Do most social scientists think this is possible if we only had enough data and the right simulator?

2. The comparison between the natural and social sciences is telling. The portrayal here is that the natural sciences have come a lot further in studying nature than social scientists in studying human behavior. Is this true? Is this a fair comparison – natural systems vs. social systems? How much “unknown knowledge” is really in each realm?

3. The coding for this project must be immense.

4. The article makes no mention of utilizing social scientists to help develop this project and analyze the data though the group behind it does have some social scientists on board.

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