Thursday, 6 October 2016

Complexity Science has a great Future

Dirk Helbing, ETH Zurich

Complexity Science is more important than ever. Even though there is now big data about everything in the world, I don’t believe that we don’t need science any longer, in contrast to what Chris Anderson has claimed in The End of Theory: the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete (Wired Magazine 16(7), 2008). He basically suggested that if you just had enough data, the truth would reveal itself.

With the data available to us, is it possible to know everything and to build a crystal ball that allows us to see everything that is going on in the world in real time? In fact, such projects are under way, built by the military and research centers around the world. Stephen Wolfram has claimed that “Humans are more predictable than Elementary Particles”. And it seems that CERN has actually built such a prediction machine that uses artificial intelligence to learn patterns in the data of human social behavior.

But these are not just research projects, because "knowledge is power". So they are political projects, too. This raises the question if so much data will enable the ruling of a wise king or a benevolent dictator. Could we optimize the world? Could society be run like a giant machine?

There are companies that seem to be working on such concepts, such as IBM and Google. They aim at reprogramming our society and building an operating system for it that would guide our decision making, thinking, and behavior with personalized information.

This kind of technology has also become interesting for politics. We are heading towards remote control of people. This could be a powerful approach: Google could manipulate billions of people on our planet. It is, therefore, worrying is that people like Larry Page said that there are a lot of things he likes to do but unfortunately he cannot, because it is illegal. 

Our society is at a cross road. No question, we will live in a data based society – but what kind of society will it be? Feudalism 2.0, Facism 2.0, or Communism 2.0?

It is concerning that there are voices claiming that democracy is an outdated technology. We see that democracy is in trouble in some countries such as Poland, Turkey, and France. We might easily loose what we have built over hundreds of years – freedom, human dignity, fairness and justice, pluralism, democracy, participation, social norms and culture, security and peace, and many jobs. 

It is time to say Stop. The magic formula "more data = more knowledge = more power = more success" does not work in many cases. Correlation does not equal causation.

There is also a technical reason for this: even though processing power increases exponentially, data volume increases even faster – the fraction of data we can process is going down over time. Moreover, as we go on networking the world, systemic complexity is growing even faster, which implies a loss of top-down control and a need of distributed control.

We need to build a digital democracy, which we may call "democracy 2.0". We need to learn how to bring great ideas and the knowledge of many people and artificial intelligence systems together. For this, we need to build online deliberation platforms.

It is not the best individual solution that wins, but diversity: the combination of many solutions creates collective intelligence. Being confronted with so many problems in the 21st century, such as financial, economic and spending crisis, massive unemployment, responses of decision-makers have become ever more desperate.

Our main problem is the lack of sustainability. We are overusing the resources of the world, in particular nitrogen and phosphors, but also water – thus creating massive problems. 

We need a new kind of economic system, capitalism 2.0, which is liberal, democratic, participatory, social and ecological. This can now be built by combining the Internet of Things, block chain technology and complexity science. To build a circular economy, we need a system that can measure, value and trade externalities – external effects of interactions between people, companies and the environment. 

We have started to build such a system called "Nervousnet": a planetary nervous system based on Internet of Things technology run by the citizens. It is using smartphones as sensors to measure the environment. To be able to trust the system, informational self-determination is taken seriously. 

It also becomes possible now to map resources and who uses them with an app called But we need to go a step further. It is necessary to create a multi-dimensional incentive and reward system: "finance 4.0" or "social-ecological finance" that allows us to create feedback loops in the system in order to support favorable kinds of self-organization. 

This system can now be built. BitCoin has shown that it is possible to create money in a bottom up way. By measuring externalities of different kinds, people would create different kinds of money (and earn money), and this money would eventually rise to the top, thereby benefitting everyone. 

This would enable us to turn the digital dessert that Europe currently is into a digital rainforest with digital opportunities for everyone, where interoperability would allow to combine existing products and services in order to create new products and services, which unleashes combinatorial innovation. 

It is time to build this open and participatory information, innovation, production, and service ecosystem. Let’s do this together. 

Short Bio:
Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich and member of the German Academy of Sciences "Leopoldina". Helbing is member of the Global Brain Institute and the International Centre for Earth Simulation. He heads the and initiatives, which want to open up the opportunities of Big Data and the Internet of Things for everyone, and leads the PhD program "Engineering Social Technologies for a Responsible Digital Future" at TU Delft. 

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