New computer model might be smart enough to predict the future.
The complexity of the planet we live on is part of its beauty, but it’s also why scientists have such a hard time predicting what effect various changes in the ecosystem will have. A new computer model, the Madingley Model, can simulate the way in which all types of organisms interact on a global scale – and has even managed to make its first accurate prediction about the future.
Created by Drew Purves and his colleagues at Microsoft’s Computational Science Lab in Cambridge, is unlike traditional models, which collect as much data as possible, before adding it altogether in one simulation.
“We throw small amounts of every type of animal and plant everywhere and off they go,” says Purves. After that, some organisms flourish, while others die out. Some flourish in one environment, others migrate, and some perish. Eventually, things reach an equilibrium that resembles life on Earth – minus the humans.
“Out of everything we put in, something emerges that looks about right,” says Purves. “We get a collection of individuals in each place, and patterns of who eats who, how quickly they’re growing and dying. We have a virtual world and it’s incredibly rich.”
Once humans have been added, the model will help to show the different ways in which we have thrown the environment off balance. We could also see further into the future, and simulate what would happen if top predators like tuna or tigers were hunted to extinction, or all the bees on Earth died out.
The system even managed to teach the scientists a thing or two, who noticed that the virtual oceans contained ten times more fish than expected. Researchers studying fish biomass then confirmed that the best current estimates are usually off by a very long way.
Hopefully the Madingley Model will be able to show us just how catastrophic our actions will be if we continue to go about life the same way. If seeing the world crumble before your own eyes (even if it is virtual) isn’t enough, then there may be very few other ideas that can reveal the seriousness of the problem we face.