FuturICT FET Flagship

Participatory Computing for Our Complex World

FuturICT Questions & Answers

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. Here is the official ranking and description of all EU flagship pilots, and here you can find out more about FuturICT.

  1. Q:

    FuturICT is NOT


    FuturICT is NOT creating a Crystal Ball. It is determining causal interdependencies and ways to create more sustainable and resilient systems, such that local problems will not cause cascade effects producing global crises.


  2. Q:

    FuturICT engages


    FuturICT engages in a paradigm shift from a technologically driven society to a socially oriented technology, encompassing: a co-evolution of ICT with society, ethics- and value-oriented information and communication technologies (ICT), privacy-respecting data mining and user control over personal data, socially and culturally adaptive ICT, the creation of a data and modelling commons, participatory platforms, an open innovation ecosystem, and digital literacy for everyone.

  3. Q:

    FuturICT is NOT


    FuturICT is NOT engaging in technologies for surveillance or policing. It trusts our citizens and believes that the right cooperation tools will allow people to reach a better coordination of interests, building on the intelligence of the people.

  4. Q:

    FuturICT is NOT


    FuturICT is NOT creating a machine to take decisions for humans. It is creating participatory ("Wikipedia-like") platforms, which allow citizens to make a greater contribution to social, economic and political issues, and to participate in the benefits of a creative information society.

  5. Q:

    FuturICT is NOT


    FuturICT is NOT planning to collect all the data of the world. It is developing theoretically grounded methods supporting a responsible, sparse, self-determined, and privacy-respecting use of data.

  6. Q:

    Where can I find more information about ethics and the efforts with respect to privacy protection?


    More information on the ethical aspects of FuturICT can be found in the paper “FuturICT – The Road towards Ethical ICT” (J. van den Hoven et al.). In this paper we describe the role of ethics within FuturICT and explain in more detail how the approach of Privacy by Design will be used.

  7. Q:

    Will people trust the result?


    They will if they see how well it works.

  8. Q:

    Would you really be able to avoid "X", where "X"= fukushima, 9/11, credit crisis, etc?


    We are not claiming to build an all-powerful machine to avoid arbitrary disasters, but we will be able to better understand the conditions and mechanisms that make them happen, what their impact is, etc.  We can make a significant contribution to understanding systemic instabilities.  Any reduction in the societal and economic impact of crises will make the project investments pay off.

  9. Q:

    Will you need proprietary data? If so, how will you get it, isn't much of this data owned by governments and closed?


    It is increasingly possible to acquire high quality public data but there is also project money for proprietary (e.g. financial) data.

  10. Q:

    Doesn't this need AI-complete sense-making?


    No, we're not replacing human intelligence; we are mixing human intelligence with machine processing to let each do what they are best at.  Much of the sense/meaning-making and interpretation is done by people, not by machines.

  11. Q:

    How do you reach out to policy makers?


    FuturICT will reach out to policy makers via the exploritories, the public who is using the participatory platform and via our advisory panels: for business, politics, public, science.

  12. Q:

    What about ethics, privacy and the possibility of abuse of the system? Will this only be a tool for powerful, and even nasty governments?


    We are aware of the risks that come along with the goals of our project. We therefore included a number of measures to ensure a responsible handling of ethical issues: There will be a cross-cutting research area exclusively dealing with ethical questions in the context of FuturICT. Within this area, research on Ethics of Computing and Value Sensitive Design methodologies will be carried out and applied to the activities in the other areas of FuturICT. Workshops for PhD students and internal consultations on ethically responsible innovation will complement these efforts. Furthermore, an ethical board will actively be involved in research carried out in other parts of the project and will oversee activities and report to consortium leaders.

  13. Q:

    Is it realistic to involve non-experts from the general public, how will FuturICT encourage people to contribute?  How will FuturICT ensure the quality of the publicly available data?


    We know this is feasible from experiences in the past 10 years:  see wikipedia, imdb, open street map and the last 10 years of open source data, free apps, open data, these work under certain conditions that are now well understood. 

  14. Q:

    Will this be only quantitative social science, and ignore all of qualitative social science? Is this not just pretending that everything is like physics?


    We are not replacing qualitative social science, we are adding to it.  We are not claiming that we can predict individual behavior, but we claim it's possible to understand global behavior.

  15. Q:

    If it is this great, why has Google not done this yet, how is this different to what Google or Facebook do?


    Google is doing this to some extent but they are only doing the aspects that have a business model.  They are too narrowly skilled for this.

  16. Q:

    Can FuturICT really achieve the required interoperability, between services and between data both syntactically and semantically?


    Yes, web technologies and standards have made sufficient progress on this in the past 10 years, for example look at the current Web of Data, which already contains heterogeneous datasets of billions of items.

  17. Q:

    Why will FuturICT not fail like all the other big IT projects, do you have the engineering power to build this?  What will this do for European industry?


    We are building demonstrators, not industrial quality services.  Industrial parties will take up business opportunities.

  18. Q:

    What are the ICT issues?


    There are a number of ICT issues involved; dealing with large scale data, integrating heterogeneous data (syntactically, semantically), combining human and machine computing, long term and large scale data curation, service interoperability, user interface challenges.  We need to learn how to design loosely coupled IT systems (instead of the current systems with tightly coupled components of which we do not even understand all the couplings).

  19. Q:

    Are you going to predict the future?


    We don't need to predict the future, certainly not in detailed time steps; we are modelling scenarios, at certain levels of abstraction and granularity and then answering what-if questions/scenarios in terms of likelihoods and probabilities.  This is not unlike general scientific modelling.

  20. Q:

    You want to make society less vulnerable. But will knowledge obtained by FuturICT not tempt decision-makers in politics and economy to give up responsibility and to take more risks?


    On the contrary: it will become more visible that we have already taken higher risks than we thought, because cascading effects were neglected. Approaching this problem scientifically, one learns that we should never get too close to the theoretical stability threshold of a system, because one needs to have sufficient safety margins. Profit-driven interests often lead to a neglection of this principle. It is therefore important to identify and quantify dangers right from the very beginning.

  21. Q:

    Isn’t there a danger that the FuturICT system will convey a false sense of safety?


    We don’t think this is the case, because the system would first of all make the many uncertainties explicit that we are facing. We are well aware of the danger of overconfidence – one of our recent publications has actually addressed this issue.

  22. Q:

    When do we expect the first results?


    The project is currently being designed for a ten year timescale, beginning in 2013, with a year of preparations from summer 2011 to summer 2012. We expect to be able to demonstrate prototype tools allowing decision makers to interact with initial simulations and data repositories in 2015.

  23. Q:

    What role will FuturICT have for junior researchers and PhD students?


    FuturICT believes that young researchers should be major contributors and beneficiaries of the project. Given the 10 year time horizon, some researchers who start the project as PhD candidates may end it as professors. This implies that FuturICT should have a well thought-out strategy for young researchers. This will be developed in detail over the consultation period involving all relevant stakeholders. There is already strong commitment to supporting young researcher forums and events, and extended visits between partner institutions. Consideration is being given to the launch of a small grant scheme, open to groups of young researchers from different institutions who wish to collaborate on joint research projects.

  24. Q:

    It is not clear how FuturICT will be managed, which groups will be funded or how ideas will be evaluated within the project.


    Given the new nature of the FET Flagship initiatives, a major part of the consultation will involve formulating a responsive, transparent and highly agile funding model within the project. Since the project would run for 10 years and would address a fast moving area, it will not be the case that work can be planned in detail for the entire time period, but rather mechanisms will be agreed on that facilitate flexible funding. This will mean that new ideas, groups and researchers will be able to join the project and contribute.

  25. Q:

    Some of the goals of FuturICT may appear overly ambitious from the point of view of existing economic and social science. What steps will be made to include appropriate communities in the shaping of the FuturICT proposal?


    FuturICT aims to be fully interdisciplinary and to involve approaches, methods and researchers from all areas. It is strongly believed that the domination of one approach, discipline or set of assumptions is not healthy for open debate and innovation. Many have argued that orthodox economics suffered from such an academic monoculture in the past and FuturICT will take the necessary steps to avoid repeating such a mistake. FuturICT aims for an open approach in which all relevant voices are heard. A major task of the consultation period will be to establish the involvement of researchers from across the academic world.

  26. Q:

    The current FuturICT vision aims to address highly complex and historically unpredictable events such as financial crises. In the past, similar attempts have tended to fail, and in any case precise prediction of financial systems and markets is to some extent self-defeating. What exactly will be the nature of the predictions FuturICT aims to produce?


    It is indeed an ambitious goal to produce predictive models of highly complex and chaotic systems. At certain levels of resolution this will be impossible. The aim is to investigate for given classes of models what level of prediction and "control" is possible and quantify it. For example, some models may offer insights at the level of stylised facts at a macro level that could be used as early warning signs (rather than perfect predictors) of potential impending problems. In this case false positives are not necessarily a problem. New systems (such as new regulations or market mechanisms) could also be tested in silico prior to deployment in the real world. Again in such a situation, perfect prediction is not a requirement; rather, potential issues can be spotted before systems go live. For a more detailed discussion, see the Visioneer White Paper "From Social Simulation to Integrative System Design" and the manuscript "How to do agent-based simulations in the future: From modeling social mechanisms to emergent phenomena and interactive systems design" (D. Helbing and S. Balietti, available shortly).

  27. Q:

    Will fighting climate change be the main feature of the project?


    Designing sustainable systems and better understanding the interaction of society with environmental systems are indeed questions FuturICT will address. Through this work we aim to support avoidance of related crises. However, FuturICT has more of a focus on problems in social, economic and financial systems, and interactions between these systems and information and communication technologies (ICT). The project will create an interface to the environmental sciences principally to allow assessment of the impact of climate change on society and economics, and the impact of behavioural change on our environment.

  28. Q:

    What sort of socio-political crisis prediction is planned? How will it be possible to spot such an event in advance?


    We are planning to create interconnected Crisis Observatories for financial and economic crises, social crises, conflicts and wars, health risks, environmental change, and so on. The purpose is to detect advance warning signs by mining large amounts of system-relevant data, and explore policy options and their possible impacts, including undesirable side effects that should be avoided. We believe that, in many cases, systemic crises could be prevented or mitigated if our responses were quicker and we had the right technologies to support the assessment of complex, systemic problems. In the past, we have been quite successful in developing new approaches to avoid crowd disasters and reduce traffic congestion. We are confident that we will be able to identify impending conflicts, make short-term forecasts for disease spreading (based on recent discoveries in network theory), contribute to a more resilient financial architecture, and create more sustainable system designs.

  29. Q:

    The FuturICT vision requires the collection of substantial amounts of data concerning the behaviour of systems comprising human agents. What steps will be taken to respect privacy?


    The advancement and application of Privacy by Design methods will play a major role within FuturICT. We will take care to protect individuals and groups from an invasion of privacy and furthermore advance knowledge in the field of privacy protection. Compliance with extant data protection requirements will be strictly observed, monitored and reported on. At the same time FuturICT aims at improving Privacy Enhancing Technology and addresses the most difficult conceptual and fundamental question of privacy in Big Data society and applying the proven new technology to our own research.

  30. Q:

    How large is the challenge of taking those numerous data sources and creating realistic simulations? Are there existing technologies that make data mining on this sort of scale possible?


    To achieve this goal, we need technological power and people power. On the technological front, companies like Google and Yahoo have been working on such data mining technologies for some time. For example, they are exploiting the power of high parallel computing through software frameworks such as MapReduce and its open source counterpart Hadoop. MapReduce is apparently of such strategic importance to Google that it has not been made open source so far. On top of these, they run optimized languages like Pig Latin or Sawzall, which have been specifically created to handle huge quantities of data in an efficient way. On the people front, this will require the involvement of hundreds of scientists, as has been the case for the Large Hadron Collider, NASA projects, or the Human Genome Project.

  31. Q:

    The Visioneer White Paper "From Social Data Mining to Forecasting Socio-Economic Crises" identifies dozens of online sources of data - from traffic data to US government data. Is it possible to find sufficient data sources to create models of everything occurring on the planet?


    The challenge will be to identify what kinds of data are really needed to get an overview of the crucial developments in economics and society, on an aggregate (collective) rather than individual level. To answer this question, we will need to call on the wisdom of social, complexity and systems scientists. Connecting these scientists with information and communication technology experts and engineers in different disciplines will promote the development of the required measurement technologies. Over the past years, it has for example become obvious that we need better indicators than the Gross National Product to judge societal development and well-being. However, implementing better indicators clearly requires a more differentiated measurement of the state of society, including systemic risks, health, education, and environmental issues, and last but not least, happiness.

  32. Q:

    Is it really possible to collect enough data to make this project feasible?


    Yes, this will become feasible within the next ten years. The Web itself is becoming an increasingly rich data repository, and initiatives like Planetary Skin are creating globe-spanning sensor networks. Together, such infrastructures are creating a "nervous system of humanity", facilitating our awareness of global dynamics and change. Scientists are also developing lab and web experiments to develop and test social theories. Even the study of multi-player online games may be used to gain new insights into the characteristics of human behavior and social systems.

    There is no doubt that these developments will progress quickly. The technologies developed in the next decade will have the potential to shape economics and society. Given the ethical issues implied by this, it will be crucial that these technologies are used in a way that benefits society. Therefore, the process should be science-driven. It is the best way to ensure transparency and public control.

  33. Q:

    Aren’t the goals of FuturICT too ambitious and too vague to form a meaningful basis for a scientific project?


    FuturICT is designed to be a 10 year visionary project and by the rules of the Flagship funding scheme is expected to have high-level ambitious goals. Further details supporting FuturICT’s vision can be found in the Visioneer White Papers and will be further worked out in consultation with all stakeholders over a one year long process (2011-2012), if the FuturICT Coordination Action is funded.

  34. Q:

    Will you get the necessary funding to implement the project?


    The project has received immensely enthusiastic backing from scientists across a wide range of disciplines, as well as industry representatives. There has also been huge press interest in the proposal, with coverage from the BBC, The New York Times, Slashdot, New Scientist, and the national Chinese evening television news (broadcasting to 1.2 billion viewers), amongst others. An increasing number of individuals have been volunteering time and effort to enable progress towards the project’s goals. National research funding agencies have also contacted us to express their support for the project.

    We are in the process of applying for substantial financial input from the European Commission under their Flagship scheme, designed to enable the implementation of large-scale visionary projects with a budget of 1 billion Euros over ten years. The European Commission is aware of the phenomenal support for this project, and the great potential for scientific progress and social benefit which would be unleashed by funding it. We are very hopeful that this will lead to our success in our bid for Flagship funding.

  35. Q:

    How many people will be involved?


    Over 150 scientists have committed to being involved in the preparatory year, and more than twice as many supporters have signed up on our project website. We envisage this number growing considerably throughout the lifetime of the ten year project, with participants spanning academia, industry, governmental and not-for-profit organisations, and interested citizens.

  36. Q:

    When do we expect the first results?


    The project is currently being designed for a ten year timescale, beginning in 2013, with a year of preparations from summer 2011 to summer 2012. We expect to be able to demonstrate prototype tools allowing decision makers to interact with initial simulations and data repositories in 2015.

  37. Q:

    Why is there a need for a “Socio-Economic Knowledge Collider”?


    Humanity has invested billions to reveal the forces of nature, using large particle colliders. Today, we can send men to the moon, but crises such as breakdowns in our financial systems, terrorism, and global environmental change suggest that we need to pay more attention to our own planet. Many of these problems are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding of how society and the economy work. This knowledge gap must be urgently closed to anticipate, and avoid or mitigate future crises.

    For science to develop quickly enough in order to be able to offer solutions for these problems and problems which may follow, a large-scale scientific effort such as the “FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator” is needed, in order to bring the best experts from the social, computational, natural, and engineering sciences together. This will facilitate the “collision” of complementary expert knowledge and the creation of new kinds of concepts (as particle supercolliders create new kinds of particles). The goal would be to find a “grand unified theory”, to allow us to understand the forces that keep our society together better than the current scientific paradigm of “homo economicus” (the “perfect egoist”) does. This would help us determine how to manage the complexity of our intertwined social, economic, environmental and technological systems in a sustainable way.