Every day at supercomputing centers like the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS), simulations provide unique contributions for basic and applied science. From predicting weather and discovering new medicines, to enabling the more efficient design of cars and traffic flow, simulation indirectly benefits people in their everyday lives in many ways.
At the same time, however, the use of simulation is often driven by scientific or economic interests. Moreover, knowledge about the value of simulations or even their existence is often limited to a group of experts in a particular field. This reality can lead to limitations in vision about other ways in which simulation could be applied for the benefit of society.
"There is no question that computer simulations can provide added value, but they must not be a privilege of elites,” says HLRS director Michael Resch. Together with Andreas Kaminski, head of the Department of Philosophy of Computer Simulation at HLRS, he recently convened a new sociopolitical advisory board; the group held its inaugural meeting at HLRS on April 9. "We want to work together to ensure that in the future a wider cross-section of society benefits from the use of simulation," Resch explains, describing his vision for the board.
The sociopolitical advisory board includes 13 members who come from different areas of society, ensuring representation of a wide diversity of socially relevant topics. Among the disciplines represented are nursing, architecture, design, art, education, and journalism.
Many Board members recognize the potential of simulation to make complex events understandable. "Simulation can make social phenomena more accessible to decision-makers and affected people," says sociopolitical advisory board Chairman Prof. Ortwin Renn, Scientific Director at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. He points out, "Against the background of this progress, however, it must be ensured that ethical values are not violated and that social preferences are sufficiently taken into account."
Members of the HLRS Sociopolitical Advisory Board present at its inaugural meeting (l-r):
Marc Hassenzahl, Rüdiger Flöge, Sandra Youssef, Andreas Kaminski (HLRS), Ortwin Renn, Eva-Maria Gillich, Georg Vrachliotis, Claus-Peter Hutter, Bastian Koller (HLRS), Ludger Fittkau, Harald Mieg. Not pictured: Renate Hess, Waltraud Kannen, Elisabeth Steinhagen-Thiessen, Andreas Müller.
Click here for more information about the board. Photo: Julian Rettig.
The meeting started with a presentation of research projects currently underway at HLRS that have direct societal relevance. This led to a discussion among the advisory board participants on how simulation could be leveraged to support progress in their fields of expertise. Discussions centered around specific topics such as urban development, the emergence of social inequality, and populism. But questions regarding the methodology of simulations also arose: Could simulation show how Facebook would look if there were no filtering algorithm? Could a simulation provide information about desired realities, showing how it would look to live in them?
Such thematic and methodologic ideas will in the future be structured, united, and refined. Discussions will continue in order to develop a pilot proposal for a possible research project, given the availability of a suitable funding program. “We have received more input than we hoped for,” Kaminski states. “As a result, the next meeting will likely take place before the end of year in order to continue working on the pilot.”
With the advisory board HLRS will seek to discover new areas in which computer simulation can make a social contribution. This new effort will enhance other activities on social responsibility that HLRS has already undertaken. So far, for instance, a sustainability group at the HLRS has been tackling issues of energy and water use in supercomputing, while a project called "Simulated Worlds" gave pupils a chance to expand their digital skills by completing a one-year science project focused on traffic simulation.
— Lena Bühler