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Sociologists focus on the future

The Zurich research could help understand collective behaviour

(Keystone)

A Zurich-based project competing for €1 billion (SFr1.23 billion) in funding over ten years could help ease some of the pain inflicted by global crises.

Of the six projects pre-selected by the European Commission for the final round of the Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship programme, FuturICT is the only one in the field of social sciences.

The idea behind the project is that information and communication technologies and the wealth of data they can provide open up new perspectives for sociologists, allowing them to ground their research on harder facts. In theory, this will help predict trends.

But just how ambitious is FuturICT? It will have to meet the criteria set out by the European Flagship, according to which the winners of the €1 billion in funding up for grabs will have to “demonstrate a ‘man-on-the-moon’ scale vision” – in other words fuel a scientific revolution.

The proposal, like the five others still in the hunt, is based on vast network of 51 universities and institutes in 16 countries. There are also industrial partners such as search specialist Yahoo! and telecommunications operator Telecom Italia.

The leading institutes for the project are University College London (UCL) and the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ).

Living Earth Simulator

When the six finalists were announced in Budapest in May, the mathematician and co-director of the project, UCL’s Steven Bishop, was enthusiastic about the perspectives. “It’s an exciting feeling to see the nucleus of a new science developing,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Dirk Helbing, a physicist turned sociologist at ETHZ and the project’s other co-director, speaks of a renaissance of social sciences and even of a “starting point of new scientific revolution”.

What the researchers actually plan to do is to collect as much data as possible, mainly from the internet, but also from archives and studies into collective behaviour. So-called “interactive observatories” focusing on finance, the economy, social affairs and the environment will provide information to what FuturICT calls its Living Earth Simulator.

Ideally, this simulator will be able to create models of how society functions, very similar to what has already been done for complex physical and biological systems.

Privacy will be guaranteed. The project leaders say their aim is not to scrutinise people’s lives using the data, but to get results that will benefit all of society.

Warning system

Understanding society’s interactions is just the first step. Ultimately, the aim is to provide a sort of warning system for crises, to help attenuate their effects.

In 2008, not long before the global economic crash, Helbing and two colleagues had warned in a study presented to the International Risk Governance Council that the financial system had undergone changes making it inherently unstable.

FuturICT could have helped lessen the impact of such a crash – at least in theory. Whether it can help predict the future is less sure.

“You should use the term prediction carefully,” Helbing said.

“Predictions are limited, so it’s better to talk of previsions, like we do for the weather. What we can certainly do is gather sufficient knowledge of social and economic systems that will enable us to say how certain changes can affect these systems.”

According to Helbing, it is not always necessary to have an idea of what will happen to improve the system. “Our goal is to attenuate the effects of crises, reduce losses as well as generate new benefits and detect opportunities,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Political decision

But can the new sociology factor in elements such as financial greed? Helbing is convinced it can after recently publishing a study into how greed affects cooperation and social cohesion.

“A bit of greed makes people ambitious enough to try to create something together,” he said. “But there’s a certain level beyond which greed doesn’t help the system improve, instead it destabilises it.”

With the Lausanne-based Human Brain and Guardian Angels projects, FuturICT is the third Swiss proposal staking a claim to the European flagship bounty. However, only two at most of the six competing projects will be funded, with politics also weighing in on the final decision.

But like Helbing, Bishop believes FuturICT has a real chance of carrying off the prize.

“Of course it will be politicians deciding, but they will be asking their scientific advisors who to vote for,” he said. “And I think we can win because it is vital to solve some problems and we have the means to do it.”

Flagships

Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) is a European research support programme for research in information and communication technologies. Over 22 years it has co-financed 526 projects, with an increasing budget (€370 million for 2007-2011).

The “flagships” are the two projects which will be given €1billion – up to €100 million over ten years - by the European Commission. They have to be large-scale, visionary, scientifically grounded, politically supported and financially solid and have the potential to “provide solutions to some of society's biggest challenges”.

Six projects have been shortlisted; the two winners will be announced in the second half of 2012. However, the number of winners is still under discussion: it may be raised to three.

Of the finalists, Lausanne's Federal Insitute of Technology (EPFL) is leading the Human Brain Project, and is sharing the lead of a second one - Guardian Angels - with the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

Guardian Angels aims to create energy-efficient devices able to help human beings in areas ranging from health to environmental protection.

The Human Brain Project will use everything we know about the brain to make computer models that can then be used to simulate the way it actually works. The ultimate aim is to simulate the complete brain.

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(Adapted from French by Scott Capper), swissinfo.ch

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