How far can virtual worlds go in improving the real one?

Earth-simulation projects get increasingly fine-grained, but there is the human element

Computer simulation models are great tools for layering massive amounts of data into visual form, and they are becoming incredibly fine-grained, providing high-def views of both the forest and trees in our surroundings. But can they make people omniscient?

That almost seems to be the goal of the recently announced Living Earth Simulator project, which seeks to take global modeling to a new level.

Simulations now produce detailed models for everything from climate research to astrophysics. But the Living Earth Simulator is aiming for the whole enchilada, from financial systems to entire societies, all in one model. If all goes according to plan, it even could predict the future, in terms of financial crises or pandemic outbreaks.

Funded by the European Commission, the simulator would draw on data and resources from around the world, including NASA and several U.S. supercomputers, to essentially model everything happening on the planet. It’s expected to go online in 2022, when we’ll find out how omniscient, or at least prescient, computer systems can be.

The project extends an accelerating trend of using geospatial, data analysis and predictive software, along with other tools, to create detailed virtual views of the real world.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened last year one climate research supercomputer and announced plans to build another. Researchers will link with those centers through a new, high-capacity network that will carry about 80T a day in weather simulations.

NASA also is strong on modeling with several projects, such as Planetary Skin, a collaborative app to collect environmental data satellites and airborne, sea-based and land-based sensors. The agency also worked with Japan to stitch together the most detailed digital image of Earth yet produced.

Not to be left out, Google is contributing to global climate modeling with Google Earth Engine, which compiles 25 years of satellite images available for mapping trends in the Earth’s environment. The list goes on.

Having such clear pictures of the world can help in a lot of ways, and the technology will improve considerably before the Living Earth Simulator goes online in 11 years. However, predicting the future and preventing disasters could yet be troublesome because of the massively random element that is the human species. No matter how detailed the picture, can it make people wiser? Another fine-grained technology, high-definition TV, hasn’t improved the behavior of the people on screen.

People will still be people, so who knows what’s in store. But technology will march on, and views of the Earth will become ever more precise. Human beings might not be able to prevent the end of the world, but we’ll sure know what it looks like when it gets here.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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