Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Managing the Planet

The Director of the Future Planet Research Centre, David Hunter Tow, forecasts
an urgent need to harness the full resources and intelligence of the Web to coordinate and manage major programs relating to global warming and survival of the planet- including its life and human civilization.

The cards are now on the table- the climate skeptics bluff has been called. The latest science suggests that of the critical indicators of the health of the planet, at least three have already passed the critical stage and the remainder are perilously close to the abyss.

These include- biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, ocean warming and acidification, land and freshwater over-use and chemical pollution including nitrogen and phosphorous runoff. Most importantly, at current levels of CO2 accumulation, the maximum 2 degree centigrade threshold increase will be breached within twenty years.

In addition, over the past 50 years the world’s population has almost doubled to 8 billion, global consumption of food and fresh water has more than tripled, fossil fuel use has quadrupled and vertebrates have declined by over thirty percent.

It is clear that managing the planet’s outcomes to provide life with a future is the paramount goal that must focus all humanity’s skills, creativity and knowledge, from now into the far future

Up until comparatively recently, managing resources, infrastructure and catastrophes has been largely an ad hoc affair run on a country rather than regional or global basis. This is not surprising considering the evolution of our civilization, which has been based on a largely competitive, winner-take-all model between individuals, organizations, cities and nation-states.

Over the last few decades however a realization has dawned that this is an extremely inefficient and counter-productive approach and totally unsustainable in the modern carbon-induced warming era. This is particularly the case when it comes to managing critical global issues such as climate change, spread of disease, ecosystem protection and major catastrophes- including mega-droughts, oil-spills and earthquakes.

Although still operating in largely fragmented mode, humans are beginning to mobilise cooperatively, creating global research consortiums, trade and business alliances and knowledge exchange networks. But a lot more is needed to ensure our survival- primarily by becoming a lot cleverer in focusing our scientific, technology and social resources.

One of the most significant advances recently announced, w the European FuturIcT project.

This ambitious European Commission funded billion euro enterprise, was designed to simulate the knowledge resources of the entire planet- not just physical but social and economic, mobilising partners from most of the top university research centres in Europe.

The 'Living Earth Simulator' is a major part of this project originally scheduled to be completed by 2022. It will mine economic, technological, environmental and health data to create a model of the entire planet’s dynamics in real time; applying it to solve major problems relating to these areas.

There is now a vital need to better understand the global interrelationships enmeshing the society in which we live and the effect that these have on the planet as a whole. We also need to know how to leverage the benefits of global social systems, while at the same time limiting any downsides they may generate.

Labelled- 'Reality Mining', the plan was to gather information about every aspect of the living planet including its life-forms and use it to simulate the behaviour and evolution of entire ecosystems and economies; helping predict and prevent future potential crises. The Living Earth Simulator was expected to predict for example, potential economic bubbles, impacts of global warming, pandemics and conflicts and how to best mitigate them.

The FuturicT project since cancelled had the potential to nucleate and accelerate this process operating as an essential catalyst and mobiliser for managing our future. But there are many other advanced projects with the potential to complement this grand design and working in parallel to help complete the big picture.

The focus is on preparing for a smarter future for planet earth- creating solutions for managing more efficiently and reliably the world’s infrastructure, energy, food, water and health. This will be achieved through harnessing the immense power of advanced artificial intelligence, mathematical, computing, communication, control and modelling techniques.

Examples of current myriad hi-tech initiatives include-
self-healing software capable of automatically detecting, identifying, and fixing errors in the programs used in complex systems; a ‘central nervous system’ of ‘smart dust’ for the Earth, in which a trillion sensors will be deployed worldwide to monitor ecosystems, detect earthquakes, predict traffic patterns, and study energy use; a system of computerized agents that can manage energy use in the home, designed to optimize individual electricity usage to improve efficiency of the electricity grid; and leveraging the vast cornucopia of freely available services on the web to build mashups to support humanitarian and disaster relief.

As mentioned, game changing projects such as FuturicT are critical, but managing the planet requires much more- in essence coordinating and focusing the entire knowledge base and mind-power of our civilisation.

This should implemented as a world wide public project, in the same manner as the Internet and Web: with each component of the planet’s intellectual mosaic- individuals, research groups, corporations and governments, contributing and mining their knowledge resources- each according to their creative capacity and expertise.

Such a global vision is too fundamentally vital and complex to be funnelled through individual private organisations, politicians or states. It must instead function as a self-organising supra-national entity- evolving eventually as a largely autonomous system.
Managing the planet therefore will involve the massive task of coordinating thousands of techniques, technologies, systems and initiatives to gain the maximum leverage within the timescale available.

But time now is precious. Most current ‘green’ applications are in the early stages- designed to improve energy efficiency by deploying breakthroughs in sustainable technologies such as solar, wind, biofuels, carbon capture etc. But this is just the beginning of the journey. Copenhagen demonstrated that gaining consensus even for the essential task of implementing a global carbon trading system - so vital in generating the momentum to transition from polluting fossil fuels to green power- is difficult to achieve.

Is this a feasible proposition? Yes, but only by applying adaptive, autonomic system technology, capable of responding dynamically and autonomously to changes in the physical and social environment. Such a system will need to include the ability to self-organise and self-optimise its planning and operations – to discover, innovate, simulate, create, predict, apply, learn and continuously gain intelligence- to ensure optimal outcomes.

As mentioned, although projects such as FuturicT project have the potential to kick-start this process, there is only one practical mechanism to ensure the ultimate success of such a gargantuan endeavour- harnessing the intelligence of the Web itself. It must be nurtured and engineered to become self-organising and self-adaptive, in order to reach the goal of managing a sustainable future- essential for us and our planet.


  1. If there is an ever occuring theme to all this it might be called, "Net Creational". My friend, "Auntiegrav" came up with this term and in a nutshell, it implies something created by using the very least amount of energy while yet creating above and beyond what it used... An example might be a tree, providing more than what it consumed. "Creational" implies intent or control. That is what you're implying, correct?

  2. "It is clear that managing the planet’s outcomes to provide life with a future is the paramount goal that must focus all humanity’s skills, creativity and knowledge, from now into the far future"

    Have you imagined that, "to provide life with a future is the paramount goal", might imply only human life? That is, have you ever thought about it or been introduced to this idea? Hmmm, think Spengler ever thought about it?

    "This will be achieved through harnessing the immense power of advanced artificial intelligence, mathematical, computing, communication, control and modelling techniques."

    This is your "machine" isn't it? I'm not doubting it...Excellent.

  3. Re the first comment- I think the 'net creational' concept is a very interesting one Yooper and deserves further investigation- a type of synergy created when ideas merge- creating nett new information but at a minimnal energy cost.
    There is also a recent proven link between the creation of information from energy.

    Re the second comment- I meant to convey the future of life in general, as any life form- even bacteria given sufficient time, appears to follow a trajectory in complexity and already has, towards greater intelligence- even to our present human level.