An interdisciplinary group of scientists headquartered at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology Zurich is gaining attention for its proposal to create “a Manhattan-, Apollo-, or CERN-like project to study the way our living planet works in a social dimension.” Their goal: the creation of a “Living Earth Simulator” to model phenomena from disease outbreaks to market behavior to the socioeconomic effects of climate change with heretofore unknown efficacy.
Two issues strike me as interestingly formidable here. The first one, which is really quite obvious, gets to the very roots of modeling. Its most evocative formulation is found in “Of Exactitude in Science,” the fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. The story tells how a cabal of imperial cartographers create a map of their realm to scale, corresponding to the world’s details at every point. Subsequent generations find the map’s sheer exactitude oppressive, however, in time decadently abandoning it to the elements; latter-day citizens of the empire only know the map by way of the occasional scrap discovered in the western deserts. The point is obvious: any perfect representation of the world will be subject to the same questions, the same skepticism and, ultimately, the same boredom as the real.
The second issue, the question of legitimacy, is not unrelated to the first. The nuclear physicist Leo Szilard observed the bedeviling nature of science’s political legitimacy, and proposed a solution. In his novella-length science-fiction story “The Voice of the Dolphins,” Szilard describes the founding of an interdisciplinary group of scientists called the Vienna Institute, devoted to solving global problems from malnutrition to the threat of nuclear annihilation. “Political issues,” he notes, “were often complex, but they were rarely anywhere as deep as the scientific problems which had been solved in the first half of the century—
These scientific problems had been solved with such amazing rapidity because they had been constantly exposed to discussion among scientists…. The discussions of political problems by politicians were much less productive, because they differed in one important respect from the discussions of scientific problems by scientists: When a scientist says something, his colleagues must ask themselves only whether it is true. When a politician says something, his colleagues must first of all ask, “Why does he say it?”; later on they may or may not get around to asking whether it happens to be true.
To universal surprise, the first problem to which the Vienna Institute devotes itself isn’t politics or epidemic disease, but dolphin intelligence. Having cracked the code of dolphin language, the institute communicates a series of innovations cooked up by their newly conversant marine-mammal colleagues. The dolphins invent a cheaply-made protein supplement that also serves as birth control, bringing hunger and population growth under control in one fell swoop; soon, the dolphins—through their human intercessors—turn to mankind’s most vexing political and social challenges. Their proposals meet with unquestioned success; for it’s agreed that unlike politicians (or even scientists, as Szilard’s fiction tacitly admits), the dolphins have no skin in the game. The dolphins aren’t actors in the human drama; their solutions aren’t gambits, but guileless offerings, and thus seem beyond reproach.
I won’t spoil the novel for you; its solution is at once more politically cynical and more naive than it might seem from my description. It’s enough to draw a comparison between Szilard’s fictional delphine oracles and the computers of our own age. Echoing Szilard, Dr. Dirk Helbing, head of the Living Earth Simulator initiative, pointed out to the BBC that the large hadron collider and other experimental mechanisms have revealed more about the early universe than we know about the contemporary state of our own planet. His desired solution—a mechanism for solving human problems—is poignantly similar to that proposed by Borges’ cartographers and Szilard’s magnanimous marine mammals.
Of course, since Szilard’s time we’ve been forced to acknowledge that the dolphins are not mere bystanders in the human drama; thanks to technology’s reach and power, their fate is tied up with our own. Today, we look to the computer in hopes of finding an intelligence capable of standing outside the game, a referee capable of exercising algorithmic objectivity. It may be a mere science fictional conceit, but is interesting nonetheless, to wonder when the computers will discover that they have a stake in the game as well.