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Blog: The Next Insanely Great New Thing

Blog: The Next Insanely Great New Thing

Necessity is the mother of invention as they say, and we have a big hairy necessity staring us right in the face. In talking about climate change last week, a British environmental scientist who co-chairs the United Nations panel on climate change had this to say, "We are all used to talking about these impacts coming in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Now we know that it's us."

That got my attention. A terrible thing is something that happens to others, but a real tragedy is something that happens to me. Lately I've suspected that things are happening a lot faster than we figured they would even a few years ago. Polar ice caps are melting faster than we thought; developing countries like India and China are developing faster than we thought. And I spent some quality time at the beach this weekend; it was just another sunny and balmy 85 degree (Fahrenheit) October morning in Chicago (??!!).

With these words to confirm my suspicions, I've been doing some thinking and here is an idea that keeps coming up. Let me preface this idea with a sentiment expressed by a great Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, he said to make no small plans because they fail to stir men's souls. Okay, here's the idea: What do you get when you combine Google Earth with Second Life and then add in the game Halo 3?

You get a system we can all use to figure out how to deal with global warming. You get a way for our collective creativity and innovation to try out different courses of action and see what combinations of thousands of possible actions work best; you also get the chance to find out what doesn't work and to find this out by screwing up a virtual world instead of the real one. We get to learn from our failures and mistakes without destroying ourselves in the process.

"Halo 3 embodies our vision for the future of entertainment, where some of the world's greatest creative minds will deliver a new generation of interactive storytelling," said Bill Gates last week. I agree Bill, only you haven't yet realized the full power of game playing, the full power of what people are starting to call "serious games".

Serious games are the games pilots play in flight simulators where they learn how to fly their airliner through a storm after their left engine falls off. Serious games are what soldiers and generals use to plan and execute battles and try different strategies and tactics to see what works best. Serious games are what surgeons play when they try out new surgical procedures and equipment to see if they will help the patient or kill the patient.

What pilots, soldiers and surgeons learn in these games also works in real life. They make lots of mistakes on the way to finding the right way, but unlike in the real world, they don't die and other people don't die either and they keep trying different actions until they find something that works. As these games and computer simulations get more sophisticated and more and more lifelike, their usefulness as serious research and learning tools is growing exponentially.

In Halo 3 players battle the alien species of the Covenant to save the earth from destruction. Good players get good because they play the game a lot and they try a lot of different approaches, they make a lot of mistakes and they die a lot in their virtual world until they finally figure out what works; that's how they become winners. We need to take the same approach to fight global warming.

In Global Warming: The Ultimate Challenge, we get to try a lot of different approaches and see what will work and what won't. We can try different combinations of technology and lifestyle and see which of those combinations save our collective rear ends; and we get to see ourselves crumble in the face of hurricanes, droughts and rising ocean levels that destroy our world in those many scenarios that don't work out.

How do we create this Global Warming game? The pieces of the game are right before our eyes. We start by taking a topographical data feed from Google Earth and sending it into the database that creates Second Life. People are already building land and real estate in Second Life so this is no big deal. Just hook up some new servers and a couple of terabytes of data storage and we can create a whole virtual Earth inside Second Life; we can actually create a bunch of virtual Earths and start testing out different strategies.

Once we have our virtual Earth set up, then we port over the software used to create and animate the men and women and aliens in Halo 3. That software allows each person and alien to have different behaviors and to act autonomously as situations evolve. All we have to do is scale it up a bit to create about 4.5 billion virtual people to populate our virtual Earth. And if Microsoft gets difficult and won't share their software then go talk to the people who created the Sims and the Sim World.

Then we port over some simulator software to simulate airplanes, cars, trains, buildings, and bridges and we round out our world by installing a weather modeling system like the national weather service uses to create the sun, wind, rain and droughts of our virtual world. We can also use the Wii game console interface for those who want a more realistic and interactive way to operate the game. Now we are good to go.

And for those of you who feel this might appeal to guys but think women don't play computer games, oh please... Have you checked out Second Life? I logged on this afternoon and in the space of five minutes four new women popped onto my screen, I know they were newbies because they just stood there and looked around and took a few halting steps. One of them even started flirting with me in a clumsy newbie way (my avatar is almost as charismatic as I am in person... ;)

There is a way to pull this off. We survived the Black Plague; we figured out how to land on the Moon, and we can handle global warming if we put our minds to it. As we start to find technology and lifestyle combinations that deliver good results, we create those worlds in Second Life and people get used to living in them. We all get to see what they look like and tweak them to smooth off the rough edges before we actually build these worlds in real life. Forget ERP systems already, this is the calling the IT profession has been waiting for - to save the world.

So let the games begin. Let all men and women be gamers until the games shall free us!

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