December 5, 2011

Living Earth Simulator: The Ultimate HPC Big Data Application

Michael Feldman

Supercomputing technology to predict the future of the planet? Not quite.

The European Union (EU) is pledging 1 billion euros on a set of advanced computer technologies, including a supercomputing network, for predicting the future. But in this case, it’s not about forecasting climate change, finding marauding asteroids, or the determining the ultimate fate of the universe. Rather it is specifically designed to forecast social and economic events, in particular crisis events.

The supercomputing side of the effort has been given the grand title of the Living Earth Simulator (LES). The LES is part of the FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator Project, which also encompasses a global sensor network Planetary Nervous System) and a framework for individuals and organizations to share data (Global Participatory Platform). To fulfill its mission as a planetary crystal ball, the LES system will gather information from the sensor network, Twitter, web news searches, and a wide variety of other real-time sources, and try and tease out higher level societal trends. The overarching idea is to apply supercomputing technology and this real-time data feed to social systems in much the same manner as has been done for physical systems.

Here’s how the FuturICT site describes the goals of the project:

The FuturICT project will produce benefits for science, technology and society by integrating previously separated approaches. ICT systems of the future will provide the social sciences with the datasets needed to make major breakthroughs in our understanding of the principles that make socially interactive systems work well. This, in turn, will inspire the design of future systems, made up of billions of interacting, intelligent components capable of partially autonomous decisions. One goal is the creation of a privacy-respecting, reputation-oriented, and self-regulating information ecosystem that promotes the co-evolution of ICT with society. The tremendous growth in social media, mobile applications, Open Data and Big Data will enable complexity science to tackle practical problems by uncovering laws of interaction and help us understand the implications of strong couplings, thereby forging a new science of global systems that are more resilient to disruptions.

If this all sounds ‘Blue Sky,’ it should be noted that this is a long range effort. The 1 billion euros in funding for the project will be spread over 10 years, that is, assuming the euro and the EU are still around in a decade. Speaking of which, a supercomputer to predict the fate of EU finances would be a welcome tool today, given the developing economic crisis in Europe over the solvency of some of the EU member nations.

The system could also be used to identify political unrest, the spread of epidemics, economic bubbles, and other types of systematic instabilities. About 30 computer science centers around the world have pledged support for the project. Most of these centers like ETH Zurich and Oxford University are in Europe, but there is also buy-in from groups in the USA, Japan, China, and Australia. In addition, the project is getting backing from commercial organizations, including Microsoft Research, IBM, Telecom Italia, Yahoo! Research, and Disney Research, among others.

For more a deeper dive on the project, check out the FutureICT site.

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