The European Union has a research policy agenda that varies wildly. In one project, FuturICT, it has set out to examine the following, according to their website:
The ultimate goal of the FuturICT flagship project is to understand and manage complex, global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience. Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies probably constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century and is equally important for the development of novel robust, trustworthy and adaptive information and communication technologies (ICT), based on socially inspired paradigms.
Oooookay. That is pretty ambitious. Now, here is a question for you. Is this the kind of research we want? I must confess to being very much of two minds here. On one side I do like the broad approach and much of what the project has been doing is interesting. A recent paper outlines in-depth some challenges for complexity sciences that I found interesting. Again, though, the scoping is a bit, hm, exorbitant:
FuturICT foundations are social science, complex systems science, and ICT. The main concerns and challenges in the science of complex systems in the context of FuturICT are laid out in this paper with special emphasis on the Complex Systems route to Social Sciences. This include complex systems having: many heterogeneous interacting parts; multiple scales; complicated transition laws; unexpected or unpredicted emergence; sensitive dependence on initial conditions; path-dependent dynamics; networked hierarchical connectivities; interaction of autonomous agents; self-organisation; non-equilibrium dynamics; combinatorial explosion; adaptivity to changing environments; co-evolving subsystems; ill-defined boundaries; and multilevel dynamics. In this context, science is seen as the process of abstracting the dynamics of systems from data. This presents many challenges including: data gathering by large-scale experiment, participatory sensing and social computation, managing huge distributed dynamic and heterogeneous databases; moving from data to dynamical models, going beyond correlations to cause-effect relationships, understanding the relationship between simple and comprehensive models with appropriate choices of variables, ensemble modeling and data assimilation, modeling systems of systems of systems with many levels between micro and macro; and formulating new approaches to prediction, forecasting, and risk, especially in systems that can reflect on and change their behaviour in response to predictions, and systems whose apparently predictable behaviour is disrupted by apparently unpredictable rare or extreme events. These challenges are part of the FuturICT agenda.
Oh, just that? Where is your ambition, project members? Joking aside, it is exhilarating to see someone aim for the stars like this. But will it succeed? One problem I have is that I do not know what it would look like for the project to succeed. Accomplishing the singularity (finally!) or producing a god-like AI? Or just cataloguing a series of really interesting problems?
So I hesitate. On one side: good for EU that it dares address these challenges head on! On the other side: what exactly are you doing? Then I remember the millions that the EU plowed down into Electronic Copyright Management Systems like Imprimatur. Maybe we are better off with a project that states the following:
The FuturICT flagship proposal intends to unify hundreds of the best scientists in Europe in a 10 year 1 billion EUR program to explore social life on earth and everything it relates to. The FuturICT flagship proposal will produce historic breakthroughs and provide powerful new ways to manage challenges that make the modern world so difficult to predict, including the financial crisis.
Oh, good. What is all the fuss on the stock markets about, then? So, what do you think. Flip or flop? My jury was caught in a combinatorial participatory sensing explosion.