AI algorithms are becoming an integral part of Smart City initiatives that aim to automate and improve a wide range of municipal activities and operations. These programs differ widely from case to case but most of them generally share the goals of improving living conditions, making cities more competitive and making them more environmentally sustainable.
To some extent, planners have been working to improve these metrics for as long as there have been cities. Now, they are just applying the latest technology to these problems. Smart urban planners, for example, have been creating and widening streets to reduce congestion or building parks to improve livability in cities for thousands of years. And one of the earliest examples of computer technology being used in city management was in Los Angeles beginning in the 1960s when they used databases and aerial photography to track demographic trends and evaluate housing quality.
But the modern smart city initiative isn’t just “city planning plus digital technology”, or even “city planning plus the internet”. The modern push to smart cities began in 2005, when the Clinton Foundation enlisted the help of Cisco to improve sustainability in cities. Using a grant from the foundation, Cisco launched the Connected Urban Development Program in conjunction with San Francisco, Amsterdam and Seoul. Their implementation of the concept focused on broadband infrastructure improvement and data sharing specifically to help cities reduce their levels of CO2.
The next major entrant to the sector was in 2008, when IBM launched its Smarter Planet group to explore the use of sensors, networks and analytics for the purpose of achieving economic growth, efficiency, sustainable development and societal progress.
As supporting technologies such as Internet of Things, energy-efficient LED lighting and cloud computing have developed, we have seen a proliferation of low-cost sensors, city-wide wifi and cost effective illumination that have all contributed greatly to smart city programs. The growth of cloud computing has also allowed cities to scale analytics and made purchasing of these sophisticated systems much easier.
Now we are seeing the latest big boost to Smart City initiatives in the form of Artificial Intelligence. AI gives computers the ability to see, hear, move, and reason. AI-powered computer vision systems, for example, could allow computers to identify millions of elements of urban life simultaneously, such as people, cars, public workers, trash, accidents, fires, disasters, etc. The system could allow not only for autonomous monitoring but to make decisions based on how each of these elements behave, how behaviors change over the course of each day or over time, and how elements are responding to city systems. In short, AI will understand how cities are being used and how they are functioning and could assist city planners in understanding how the city is responding to various changes and initiatives.
Current smart city programs using AI include improvements to traffic and parking management. Future programs could include safe integration of autonomous ride-share vehicles.
But there is a definite dark side to the potential for AI in urban planning — and that is the prospect of using AI monitoring of residents to control behavior through fear of punishment.
China’s implementation of their social credit system is just such an endeavour. Using facial recognition technology to identify individual citizens, their system will be able to identify behaviors such as not paying for train or bus tickets, jaywalking, speaking rudely, or causing a commotion. Rule violations would result in points being subtracted from a citizen’s social credit score. Initially, each government department and city agency will have their own social credit system — the parking authority will dock credit points for a parking violation, while the transit system will dock points for an infraction on public transportation. But China’s goal is to join these systems to a Universal Social Credit System — where violations in one area could result in loss of opportunity in society in another area. If you don’t bag your trash correctly or pay your taxes on time, you could lose work or educational opportunities, travel rights, or vacation time. The implications are frightening.
While much has been written on this topic already, and it is safe to say there is a big difference between authoritarian China and the democratic West, nonetheless any discussion of AI implementation by urban governments — no matter how noble in their goals — must include awareness of these potential downsides.
This is unfortunate, only insofar that it may serve to turn people off from the incredible opportunities to improve not only efficiency, quality of life and sustainability using AI technology — but also individual freedoms and human rights. Multiple programs in the United States are now focused on police monitoring using badge cams and AI systems to ensure that interactions between the police and citizens are legal and that both police and citizen rights are protected.
In fact, the largest current use case in smart city programs globally is visual surveillance systems, with the other two being public transit and smart outdoor lighting. These three areas combined account for almost 25% of total smart city spending.
IDC recently published their latest Smart Cities Spending Guide, and estimated that in 2018 over $81 billion will be spent on Smart City initiatives and expect this to grow to $158 billion by 2022.
Over 50% of the global population now lives in cities and this is projected to grow to over two thirds by 2050. In terms of carbon footprint, while cities occupy only 2% of the world’s landmass, they are responsible for more than 70% of CO2 emissions globally. Innovative technological solutions will be required to ensure that urbanization can continue to occur in a safe, efficient and healthy way for us and for the planet. The combination of AI, sensors, cloud computing working hand in hand with strong privacy laws and a rigid definition of human rights will give us truly smart cities that can act as the basis for human growth and flourishing.
By Angus Roven,
Neuromation Investor Relations Analyst