The Simulation Century: The Highest Moral Purpose of High Performance Computing in the Metaverse

Recently I interviewed one of the early pioneers of Virtual World building for my Metaversial Minute podcast. Dr. Richard Bartle is the Honorary Professor of Computer Game Design at the University of Essex, just outside of London. He is the author of Designing Virtual Worlds and his most recent book is How to be a god.

I asked him what he thought we should do with all of this increasing computing power and storage within the emerging Metaverse, whatever that becomes. Eventually I recast that question as what is the highest moral purpose that our high power computing and virtual world designing skills might serve? We had a rich discussion about how humanity has been striving to put the tools we wield towards bettering our nasty short and brutish lives. From the first use of early tools and scribbling on cave walls to the 19th century written designs for better worlds found in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward we have pursued descriptions and designs of ideal forms for governance and community that might just make our brief struts upon the stage bearable.

Now that we have the means and media to manifest those designs in deep simulated form that will permit us to test these ideas against reality, a new age has dawned. I told Dr Bartle that, were I to present myself as a PhD candidate in his program I would propose a thesis something like this: This is the Simulation Century. The last century was the first when humanity could gaze upon its deeds by viewing the recorded moving image, reflecting upon live or taped footage of events from around the world. Marshall McLuhan said then that the media we used to reflect on our activities on thai pale blue dot in the universe were transforming us as we used them; mentally, physically, culturally. The things we make, he said,  make us in turn. And now this is the Simulation Century, the first time in human history where we can manifest these ideas in visible, manipulable form and test our ideas against reality. These models can serve as societal blueprints towards which we can build and can serve to warn us away from steps towards decline or destruction.

The ever advancing power of computing is giving us more power for reflection and design than we have ever wielded. As we wield these tools, they certainly are transforming us. So, how do we bend all of this effort, art and tekhne towards good?

DIME and PMESII Modeling  (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economics)(Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information and Infrastructure)

When Lockheed Martin bought my company in 2007 I created my own skunkworks, called Virtual World Labs, that spanned the leviathan business units of that hundred year old company, including Lockheed’s own famed skunkworks in Palmdale, CA.. One of the first big initiatives was attempting to create simulated countries for Department of Defense war games and exercises. Most of the focus initially was on terrain and infrastructure modeling – The Physical Layer. And how do we devise methods to keep those models current by ingesting sensor data – a practice we called “run from source”. Ingesting those massive data sets consumed a great deal of what we considered then “high performance computing” cycles. But when General Stanley McChrystal introduced the idea that we had to model hearts and minds, the problem increased exponentially. We called this “the human terrain” to make the data folks comfortable. We had very little in the way of sensor data upon which to draw. The human terrain data sets were hand-gathered, hand-input and human-processed messy things that resulted in inaccurate or incomplete reference sets that informed our agent-based models that were very poor initially at prediction.

These flaws notwithstanding, the first attempts were very helpful in revealing where the gaps in our data and models were, and where we needed to devise new gathering methods. Soon, we could reasonably predict that if USAID  built a school for girls in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, which groups of people, based on their modeled cultural values, traditions and belief systems, would be supportive, which would be neutral and which and how many would be so moved to anger that they would burn down the school.

This was the new capacity that Dr Bartle and I wrangled over during our online chat. All of his books have been design bibles for those of us who have been tilting at the metaverse for thirty years or more. And in every book he surfaces the concerns we all have for the negative potential of these new technologies and how we need to be vigilant in our efforts to shape them towards benevolent purpose. We decided one mighty and hopeful purpose for high performance computing with rich simulated data models could be the modeling and simulation of our future society. We are still wrestling with how to quantify and measure the dimensions of human happiness, of community wellness and prosperity. How do we model not just how to survive, but how to thrive? Building these worlds and beginning to test them will reveal the gaps and invite our focus and effort to strengthen them.

Developing a robust community modeling and simulation capability (a community digital twin?) with every dimension that contributes to our health nd prosperity, could help us plan for and weather the next pandemic, our human terrain models can help us see how to heal the fractures in our political terrain and reveal common modeled aspirations for our future.

“The rapid progress true science now makes occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter…Agriculture may diminish its Labour and double its Produce; all Diseases may, by sure means, be prevented or cured, not even excepting that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity.”

-Benjamin Franklin

Richard Boyd




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