Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ethics and Social Behaviour in ICT today

Two cases in the news today which highlight ethical issues in ICT and changes in social behaviour. First the US case of the celebrity hacker who failed to realise that private meant private and the other in the UK was the case of the twitter user jailed for offensive comments.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

UCL Energy Institute professors announced as government advisors

Professors Tadj Oreszczyn and Paul Ekins, UCL Energy Institute, on their appointment as advisors to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s new Energy Efficiency Deployment Office (EEDO). The Office will be working with leading industry experts to ensure that they have the best possible evidence, analysis and policy response to a challenging agenda in an area which has previously been fragmented across stakeholder groups and government departments.

Full article: http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/energy/news/eedo-advisers

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

FuturICT – Participatory Computing for Our Complex World at the Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences

The FuturICT Project on 
“Global Participatory Computing for Our Complex World”

Questions and Answers by Dirk Helbing

Q: What will the FuturICT project do?
A: The FuturICT project is about creating new information and communication systems that are beneficial for individuals and society. Our aim is to learn how to better understand and manage complex global systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience.

Q: What is the progress of the FuturICT project in building a Crystal Ball to tell the future of the world?

A: In contrast to the Crystal Ball projects in the United States, FuturICT is rather developing a global systems science to understand our world and systemic risks better. It also creates new instruments to explore our options to act, and to manage our future in a participatory way.

Q: Can you be more specific?

A: Yes, of course. We are now entering an age of Big Data, which creates many new opportunities. Consequently, the FuturICT project is about creating new information and communication systems to stimulate human imagination and responsible action by bringing together data, models, and people.

Q: What kinds of systems are you talking about?

A: New platforms such as a “Planetary Nervous System” to measure the state of the world, a Living Earth Simulator to study “What … if…” scenarios, and a Global Participatory Platform to support communication and collaboration, furthermore an Innovation Accelerator to address burning questions more efficiently and to create new business opportunities, and Exploratories to identify emerging risks and opportunities.

Q: Why do you talk about a Planetary Nervous System?

A: Because it will measure the state of the world, including social and economic activity patterns in real-time and to turn these data into useful information to create a picture of the world that makes sense.

Q: Isn’t it dangerous for society to collect so much data?
A: If it is done in the wrong way, yes. At the moment, many bad things are happening with our data: sensitive data is stolen and used in ways we would never agree to. It is important to find ways that allow one to do business, but protect individuals and society. FuturICT will develop privacy and value-sensitive ICT designs. It will also study how personalized search and recommender systems manipulate individuals and impact society.

Q: Wouldn't FuturICT itself create a Big Brother watching us?

A: No, in contrast to companies and secret services, FuturICT is not interested in tracking individuals. The goal is rather to create awareness for the implications of our decisions and actions, and to highlight problems and opportunities. The goal is not to collect all the data one can get, but to create devices that allow tailored measurements, e.g. of social capital and social impact.

Q: Can this lead to more sustainability?

A: Yes, this is the idea. Social well-being depends on many factors, not just economic productivity. Everyone knows today that our environment must be protected from destruction, but the same holds also for social capital such as solidarity, trust, and safety.

Q: Do you think this will make a difference?
A: Yes, absolutely. Current success indicators such as the global domestic product per capita and also common risk measures do not consider social capital. This is why social capital is exploited and damaged, and why too high risks are taken. In the end, this produces high societal costs.

Q: What is the Living Earth Simulator about? Do you want to make Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory come true?
A: The purpose of the Living Earth Simulator is not to predict the history, but to explore our future options. Considering interdependencies in our world, the Living Earth Simulator will study "what if scenarios" to give a better picture of our options and their possible side effects. Putting it differently, it serves to turn information into knowledge.

Q: How will it be possible to get data of everything that is happening in the world and feed it into a gigantic computer simulation?
A: FuturICT is not planning to create an exact model of the world. Scientific modelling is the art of approximation, i.e. the art to distinguish factors that matter from those which have little influence.

Q: What kinds of questions could the Living Earth Simulator answer?

A: As we are using supercomputers to design cars, planes, medical drugs, and almost everything, we would eventually get decision support for difficult economic, social, and political questions.

Q: How can this be done? Isn't the behaviour of humans completely unpredictable?

A: FuturICT does not aim at predicting the behaviour of individual people. The required models become less complicated when zooming out to focus on societal patterns rather than on individuals.

Q: But wouldn't this nevertheless require one to forecast the future?
A: FuturICT is not planning to do long-term forecasts, it is not futurology. One may imagine the principle more like weather forecasting, which works only short-term and is probabilistic rather than exact. However, using real-time measurements of a network of sensors and computational models, one can still give useful advice that generates much more value than one needs to invest.

Q: Isn't it much simpler to simulate the weather than to simulate society?
A: Indeed! This is why it took so long until computational social science took off. Models and simulation techniques for social and economic processes and complex systems are steadily improving. Powerful new empirical and experimental tools are developing quickly. This includes data mining in the internet, online polls, web experiments, and crowd sourcing techniques of all kinds.

Q: People react to forecasts while the weather doesn't. Wouldn't this make simulation results useless?
A: The response of people to information can be considered by opinion formation models. Online polls, news forums, blogs, tweets, prediction markets and search trends provide the data needed to apply them.

Q: But surprises are always possible!

A: Yes, society does not work like a clock. Take the Club of Rome's Limit to Growth study, for example. Its main merit was probably not to predict the future, but to create awareness. This has changed people's minds towards protecting our environment and saving our natural resources. Society is a complex system, and besides trends, one must consider spatial and network effects, diversity, history, context, and singular events. One book or idea can sometimes change everything!

Q: If randomness is important, why then are models useful?
A: Not everything is random. Models can still help us to be more successful on average. They can help us to better understand interdependencies in the system and reduce problems resulting from them. Short-term forecasts enable us to better adapt to the temporal evolution of the system. This can, for example, largely support the coordination between people, companies etc.

Q: Aren't our economy and our society too complex for a meaningful analysis?

A: To simulate fluid flows in a computer, we do not need to know the motion of all its molecules. Similarly, cultural habits, social conventions and norms, trends, laws, and contracts (serve to) make social and economic interactions more predictable. In fact, everyone is making plans. That's why people marry, study at the university, build homes, etc.

Q: But people also get divorced, or may not find a job after their studies.

A: Complex systems such as society are, in fact, characterized by a low degree of predictability, and they are hard to manage. This is because of their tendency to self-organize and develop new, so-called "emergent" properties.

Q: What kind of problems does this produce?

A: The strongly coupled, complex systems we have created them in the past are prone to cascading effects. These can cause extreme events. Examples are blackouts of electrical power systems, financial crises, political instabilities (as we have seen it in the Arab spring), conflict, or disease spreading.

Q: So, what do you want to do about it?

A: FuturICT is watching out for advance warning signs of systemic instabilities, which can cause large-scale crises. The goal is to reduce these and create more resilient systems, which can absorb shocks.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Yes, the financial crisis. What started with a bubble in the US real estate market caused a global financial crash, and an economic and public spending crisis in many countries. Now, politicians are even worried that Europe may break apart.

Q: How could that have been avoided?

A: The financial architecture was lacking suitable firewalls to stop the spreading of the problem. One would have to engineer the system like our electric circuits, which have fuses to avoid that short circuits cause our house to burn down.

Q: That's all? Why do you need a Living Earth Simulator for this?

A: It would help to analyse more difficult problems. For example, what would happen, if Greece left the Eurozone? Or: What would be the implications of transaction fees in financial markets? When is short-selling good, when is it harmful? What is the impact of high-frequency trading? Should leverage effects be limited?

Q: So, would the computer tell decision-makers what to do and sooner or later control the world?

A: No, the Living Earth Simulator is not intended to replace human decisions. But FuturICT will create instruments to explore the implications of human decisions and actions from multiple perspectives, as we have created telescopes in the past. People will still choose between various options based on their respective goals, priorities and values.

Q: But wouldn't the Living Earth Simulator mainly help the rich and mighty?

A: No, because the FuturICT project is going to build a Global Participatory Platform, which shall democratize the use of data and models and make them accessible to non-experts. It serves to turn knowledge into wisdom and to overcome barriers to the participation in social, economic and political affairs.

Q: So, everyone will be able use it?

A: Yes, this is why we talk about participatory computing. The challenge, however, will be to design the system in a way that promotes responsible use. Transparency, accountability and the use of reputation systems will be important, here.

Q: And what about privacy? Isn’t it endangered when mining Big Data?

A: We are aware that today's handing of human activity data is potentially harmful to individuals and society, which needs to be changed. This is why FuturICT is investing a lot into ethical research. We want to develop privacy-respecting data mining techniques and value-sensitive information and communication systems. 

Q: Will FuturICT be good or bad for business?

A: We believe that value-sensitive design will be appreciated by customers. Moreover, FuturICT wants to create open platforms that will catalyse many new services and business. FuturICT's Innovation Accelerator wants to create an innovation ecosystem, which can spark off spin-offs and opportunities for everyone.

Q: FuturICT has many ambitious goals. How do you want to manage all this?

A: FuturICT can build on the leading academic powerhouses, many supercomputer centres, 1000 supporters in 4 continents, and multi-disciplinary communities in many countries. The vision of this project excites many people. Some even want to work for the project for free. We believe the idea is timely and convinces people. That is why it will move things ahead.

Q: What makes you so optimistic?

A: We receive an enormous support. FuturICT is backed up by the best academic institutions like Oxford, University College London, Imperial College, ETH Zurich, EPFL, CNR, CNRS, Inria, Fraunhofer, DFKI and many more. We have more than 100 letters of support by university heads. Similarly, we find great interest among industry representatives.

Q: You are talking about a Planetary Nervous System, Living Earth Simulator, and Global Participatory Platform. Isn't this project just too ambitious and destined to fail?

A: The project goals are very logical, and one needs to have a vision, in which direction to go. Technology is quickly progressing, and many ideas will be picked up and promoted by companies. Just remember how quickly information and communication systems evolve. Five years ago, we basically did not have Twitter, Facebook, and iPhones. What will happen in the next 10 years is hard to imagine.

Q: What will be the biggest challenge for FuturICT?

A: To change the common way of thinking about complex systems. Traditionally, we have a component-oriented view of the world. However, the behaviour of complex systems is determined by their interactions. An interaction-oriented view will therefore lead to a new understanding of our problems and novel solutions. These will be based on improved interactions, using real-time measurements and adaptive response. It’s almost like the paradigm shift from the geo-centric to the helio-centric world view, which made modern physics and most of our modern technologies possible.