For years now simulations have changed the way we work and the way we learn. Pilots and astronauts can buckle into a simulator for a virtual training experience that puts them through their paces with emergency scenarios and tests their reactions to unexpected problems. Simulations allow us to experience all sorts of worst case scenarios and natural disasters without actually having to live through them. And I’m not just talking about complex simulator hardware: where you physically enter into a machine that helps you learn how to operate in an alternative environment and replicates a particular road, atmosphere or space. Computer simulations are the powerful scientific tool that we rely on to help us predict extreme weather and the spread of disease, sequence DNA and in general to make sense of the world we live in.
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica a computer simulation is: “the use of a computer to represent the dynamic responses of one system by the behaviour of another system modeled after it. A simulation uses a mathematical description, or model, of a real system in the form of a computer program.”
Now we’ve used computer simulations since the 1940s, when the Monte Carlo method was developed by two scientists in America, and helped to develop the hydrogen bomb. They’ve also been used, along with computer games, by academics for decades in the fields of engineering, evolutionary biology, sociology, particle physics, the list goes on. But as graphics and simulation packages improve and become ever cheaper, I foresee simulations being used the world over by anyone and everyone. They’re already on the road to being seen less and less as modelling tools solely for academics, and it’s clear that they’re going to have a huge role in the way we want to develop the planet.
Computer games which use simulations to give players a deeper understanding of real world issues are already used in education and across industries; there’s Ars Regendi that allows players to control states and make political decisions and Virtual Peace that trains players on conflict resolution and humanitarian assistance. Then there are industries like banking, which use simulations to predict how the markets move and can even use simulations to improve ATM cash flow.
The incredible computer simulations we have can open our worlds and can change the future. As these simulations run mathematical models of real world systems or even hypothetical universes, they allow us to imagine what the world might look like in 50 years - both as best and worst case scenarios. This is ridiculously exciting and immensely powerful; knowing the risks and challenges we face as well as having something tangible and “real” to work towards that’s what it’s all about.
With the technology we already have and processing cores only improving we can figure out how famine, or a humanitarian or economic crisis might play out, and make sure we mitigate any risks as far as possible. Far from helping us to understand what an alien universe or life on mars might be like, computer simulations have a huge potential impact on planet earth; on cultural issues, international relations, politics, disease prevention, and - without sounding too dramatic - humanity.