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Living Earth Simulator to seek planet's future in its data

FuturICT
FuturICT

Researchers in Switzerland are planning an incredibly ambitious computer system that will attempt to simulate as much of the planet and its activity as possible, from weather to the economy — and perhaps even predict the future. They call it the Living Earth Simulator, and it's in the running to get hundreds of millions in funding.

The idea is that with enough data and enough computing power, a system should be able to essentially simulate the whole world. But until recently, there wasn't enough data or enough computing power; now there are enormous databases on all kinds of topics, as well as labs and sensors reporting from all over the world. Add all that into a few supercomputers and you might be able to predict the next tropical storm, economic collapse or even armed conflict.

That's the pitch FuturICT is giving the EU's Future and Emerging Technology Flagship grant program, in the hopes of being chosen for ongoing funding. These coveted FET grants can be up to $100 million a year for many years, with the intention of "fulfilling a grand ambition." And this project is nothing if not ambitious.

But it's not going to be like baking a cake — just putting the ingredients together and seeing what comes out. Creating a system to integrate and manage such a vast and diverse quantity of data will be an incredibly difficult task. A model for predicting a company's stock price is totally different from one that predicts where antelopes will migrate in Africa, though both are important for determining and predicting events surrounding them.

FuturICT
A table showing research topics that would be integrated into the systemFuturICT

So while the Living Earth Simulator will be managed at a high level by FuturICT, they'll be commissioning experts in many fields to submit models and algorithms using a sort of "app store" model.

They also hope to collect data from less official sources — for instance, smartphones. The accelerometers, thermometers, cameras and other sensors in our phones could paint a real-time picture of the world that researchers could access quickly through the Simulator. All these inputs all over the world would compose what FuturICT calls the Planetary Nervous System.

The scope and complexity of the project doesn't permit all its details to be compressed into a news item; FuturICT has provided a simple one-page summary of its own, but also a much longer one with far more detail. They also have a FAQ here that may address some of the obvious questions that arise regarding such a system.

They've just been shortlisted for the grant they're hoping for, and will compete over the next year with five other projects with similarly long-term and far-reaching goals. At least two of the six will be awarded funding by the end of 2012, and will have a more full-scale launch next year.

The project might be ambitious to the point of grandiosity, but they're serious, and have acquired numerous partners in the research departments of many large companies and universities. FuturICT's work could be to the world-monitoring database of the future what ARPANet was to today's Internet.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is  coldewey.cc .