New computer project to simulate 'everything happening on Earth'

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 29, 2010 09:20 hrs

One of the most large-scale computer projects undertaken aims to simulate everything that happens on Earth - global weather patterns, spread of diseases or international financial transactions.

"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," the BBC quoted Dr Helbing, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, as saying.

The Living Earth Simulator (LES) would be a result of a knowledge accelerator colliding different branches of knowledge to reveal the hidden laws and processes underlying societies constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century, he said.

To start, the LES would need to be populated by data covering the entire gamut of activity on the planet, said Helbing. Although the hardware has not yet been built, much of the data is already being generated, he said.

More than 70 online data sources have already been identified by the team. Wikipedia, Google Maps and the UK government's data repository are just some of them.

The next step is creating a framework to turn that morass of data in to models that accurately replicate what is taken place on Earth today.

Semantic web technology will encode a description of data alongside the data itself, enabling computers to understand the data in context.

Next, it will be necessary to build supercomputer centres needed to crunch that data and produce the simulation of the Earth, said Helbing.

But what about data processing?

If you accept that only a fraction of the "several hundred exabytes of data being produced worldwide every year... would be useful for a world simulation, the bottleneck won't be the processing capacity," said Pete Warden, founder of the OpenHeatMap project and a specialist on data analysis.

"Getting access to the data will be much more of a challenge, as will figuring out something useful to do with it," he added.

"Over the past years, it has for example become obvious that we need better indicators than the gross national product to judge societal development and well-being," Helbing said.

He added that the LES is about working towards better methods to measure the state of society, which would account for health, education and environmental issues. (ANI)