Published: 22.03.12

Discussions around the living earth simulator

The large scale research project FuturICT has been referred to as knowledge accelerator, a machine to explain the world and Earth simulator. At ETH Zurich, scientists discussed the research initiative, which has been shortlisted to receive substantial funding from the EU.

Fabio Bergamin
Those who took part in the panel discussion included invited speakers Andrzej Nowak, Dirk Helbing, Peter Hedström (moderator) and Jeroen van den Hoven (from left to right). (Photo: Fabio Bergamin / ETH Zurich)
Those who took part in the panel discussion included invited speakers Andrzej Nowak, Dirk Helbing, Peter Hedström (moderator) and Jeroen van den Hoven (from left to right). (Photo: Fabio Bergamin / ETH Zurich) (large view)

Two large-scale scientific projects – so-called EU Flagship Projects – are to be funded by the EU for the next ten years, to receive fifty million Euros a year each. Six projects are still in the running, and the process of boiling these down to two is currently underway. In the science community, the debate is not only about the choice between the shortlisted projects. There is also the question of whether research funds are better invested into large-scale projects or whether a wider range of smaller projects should be funded instead. In order to address the various issues, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences are organising six informational events promoting discussion on each of the six project candidates. On Wednesday, the spotlight turned to the FuturICT project, scientifically coordinated by Dirk Helbing, a professor of sociology at ETH Zurich. Around 100 interested parties attended the event, filling the Semper-Aula up to its last seat.

FuturICT is looking to develop new technologies that make it easier to handle the large amounts of information (“big data”) that are generated in our networked world. The aim is to gain new knowledge from the analysis of such data, which should, among other things, help avoid future political and economic crises. FuturICT has ambitious goals that have also been the subject of much debate in the media in recent months. Questions have been raised as to how realistic the project’s aims are, and the project’s handling of personal information has also come under scrutiny.

Public involvement

In order to counter the critics who label FuturICT as unrealistic, Dirk Helbing and other scientists involved in the project explained what can be expected from FuturICT at Wednesday’s event. FuturICT is not a crystal ball and will not solve all the problems of the future, Helbing essentially said. However, methods and tools would be developed within the scope of the project that could well help solve future problems.

While in the past the project’s coordinators have stressed the importance of the project for global decision-makers, on Wednesday they highlighted its benefits for society as a whole. “We would like to make our data publicly accessible. Individuals and society have a right to know about their data and benefit from the findings they yield,” said Helbing. The intentionally wider focus of the project is also reflected in a new byline of FuturICT. While it used to read “Global computing for our complex world”, today the coordinators talk of “Participatory computing for our complex world”.

“Don’t leave the data protection discussion to companies”

However, the more openly the project is conducted, the more data made publicly available and the more data channelled into the project from third parties, the greater becomes the potential for abuse. Data could be stolen or manipulated with criminal intent. “It is a difficult task to make data publicly accessible without it being misused,” said Helbing. “At the moment, there are still no sufficient technologies and legal regulations to address this issue.”

However, data protection is not only a key issue for FuturICT, but for society as a whole, as pointed out by Jeroen van den Hoven, a professor of moral philosophy at Delft University of Technology. In van den Hoven’s opinion, we cannot expect companies like Google that work with personal information to conduct this data protection discussion on their own, and protect society from abuse. He said that FuturICT provides an opportunity to conduct an ethical discussion on how we want to use both, big data and information and communication technology in our society, much like the debate on genetics and cloning. “It is not enough to have a later discussion of the technical developments and associated challenges by the social sciences,” Helbing added.

One issue that has still not been resolved concerns the ownership of personal data, as noted by both Andrzej Nowak, a professor of social psychology at the University of Warsaw, and Donald Kossmann, a professor at the Institute of Information Systems at ETH Zurich. In particular, new concepts like shared ownership need to be developed further. Following this approach, personal data can belong to the individuals themselves, whilst the data collector would own an anonymised form at the same time. “Before the shared ownership of data can be possible, however, legal and technical issues need to be resolved,” said Kossmann.

Advantages of a large scale project

In the panel discussion at the end of the event, the issues addressed included whether a large-scale project like FuturICT will create added value compared to several smaller projects in the same research field. An audience member asked what would be possible through such colossal amounts of funding that could not be achieved otherwise. “A lot of what will be researched in FuturICT would also be researched without such a large scale project,” said Kossmann. However, he claimed, it is precisely because of the importance of the findings and the potential for abuse that it is in our interests to tackle the issues now in an coordinated fashion rather than leaving the field to somebody else.

Helbing pointed out that social scientists have traditionally worked in small research groups. The magnitude of FuturICT would enable interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists and computer scientists, among others, in much larger groups. Helbing is convinced that this is the only approach, which will make it possible to tackle complex issues. The EU funding would speed up the acquisition of knowledge considerably, it was stated. The project would also lead to a substantial increase in the number of experts trained in tackling complex systems and the field of data-mining; in other words, specialists who can gain new knowledge from large amounts of data. Science and politics are now more reliant on such experts than ever, said Helbing.

And what happens to the gigantic infrastructure built for FuturICT once the project ends? Might it be commercialised and would something like a “Super Google” emerge? “The project should remain in the hands of society,” said Helbing. And he also put comparisons of FuturICT with other large-scale scientific projects such as the Apollo space programme or the particle accelerator at Cern into perspective: “Apollo was at least twenty-five times bigger. The programmes to decode the human genome, the fusion reactor Iter and the research conducted at Cern are ten times the size of FuturICT.”

Links and references:

Video recording of talks and discussion at the FuturICT event 

More articles on the dossier “EU Flagship Programme”

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