Modeling the planet's future

5 Minutes with Dr. Robert Bishop, President, International Center for Earth Simulation (ICES)

Q. What is ICES?
Robert Bishop: The acronym “ICES” stands for the International Center for Earth Simulation. We see this as a long-term issue. It’s a very ambitious mission to bring together all the sciences which are currently siloed separately. They don’t talk to each other enough.

As a consequence I don’t think the destiny and the future of the planet is well understood because, until we integrate these sciences horizontally, and have them talk to each other, we really don’t know the best model to simulate the future of the planet.

Q. How does this compare to Google Earth?
RB: Google Earth is a beautiful fly-through of a static database. We want to put dynamics on top of that database so that we could see the weather and the climate, for example, and the environment and biodiversity and even the interaction of the earth with the sun through space weather and all the layers of the ocean and the layers of the atmosphere: We’d like to see it dynamically in a model.

It’s a very complex model, of course. It takes a lot of computing power to create that model and that visual output. But Google Earth is a very good first step. The public is very happy with it as a way of displaying static data. We want to create simulated model dynamic data.

Q. What is the biggest challenge?
RB: Today we have petaflop computing. The top ten computers of the world are all above one petaflop. The next level up in computing has a thousand times more power, called an exaflop. That’s where we’re heading right now in the industry as a whole.

I believe it will take an exaflop to solve the problem that ICES is presented with, which is the integration of all the sciences. There’s too much complexity to compute with today’s level of computing. We can’t get enough compute power to do the job.

We are expecting a thousand times more power in the next ten years and maybe a million times more power in the next 20 years. We are expecting that and we will need it to solve the problems of ICES.

Q. If this all works out, will we then have the power to predict natural disasters?
RB: Well, I think in the case of the natural sciences, beginning with the ocean, the weather and the climate, those things are becoming more and more predictable. If you take the history of the past thirty years, we have improved numerical weather prediction dramatically. I would say today it’s 90% predictable out to five days. Out to ten days its maybe 80% predictable.

The question is, as we go to out a month, a season, a year, interannual, and then ten years or more: what level of predictability can be get if we have more compute power and more data to assimilate.

I think the answer to every one of those questions is that we will be improving predictability but there will never be 100% predictability.

So, in talking to the public, the question is how we talk about uncertainty. How we engage the public in a broader discussion about the future of the planet on the one hand, but on the other hand we have the caveat of how much uncertainty is there in that discussion.

Q. What about citizen science tools, such as World Community Grid?
RB: The citizen science movement is very powerful. I like it, and I think it’s getting more powerful, especially as smart cellphones become available to perhaps the entire population of the world.

The idea of having 7 billion smartphones available for computation is pretty good. It requires a lot of software to bring it together, but I’m thinking more about the data that can be provided on those phones.

For example, over the next 10 years I think it is possible that these phones contain a single-chip automatic weather station. Together with GPS, that data would be very handy for a global simulator to simulate the weather in the future. I look upon it as a data entry point.

Today, if you take some of the developing countries, which have not had many computing resources of their own, the smartphone is actually penetrating those countries very quickly. They could benefit from having output from a global simulator, which would tell them what’s going to happen in their local weather.

It would be a regional downscaling from a global model, which would be helpful for running their own economies.

Q. What can 425,000 IBMers do to help?
RB: First of all, it’s a fantastic group of people, a fantastic company. They’re very professional. I’ve known this company for 45 years of my professional career.

I would love to see a partnership develop with IBM and I think IBM’s concept of standing for a smarter planet—using more intelligence. The ICES’ mission fits exactly within that scope.

The employees of IBM are very powerful and highly respected around the world. So having them contribute their ideas, their engagement with ICES would be wonderful. I would suggest they take a look at our website and let me know how you’d like to connect and participate. I’m quite open.

This is a not-for-profit mission. It’s Swiss-based, a neutral country with a lot of scientific intelligence and integrity. From that point of view I think it could be a good focal point for such a global project. I would very much open up to any inputs or suggested methods of collaboration with IBM and its employees.

Thank you for your time this evening.
RB: It’s been a great pleasure to be here.

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