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Will Artificial Intelligence Shape the Future of the Smart City?
Sam Barton, Chief Technology Officer, Smart Pension
Big or small, we all live in a smart city today, we always have. But it was only relatively recently that we coined the phrase Smart City as a way to describe our aspirations and targets to address specific issues such as a growing population or climate change but also the increased adoption of technology and data within which can enable an even smarter city, if used carefully.
Since ground was dug on man’s first cities we’ve looked to use innovative new ways to make our lives more efficient. The Roman’s created roads to improve transport and aqueducts to direct clean water into the populous. Sewers were introduced to combat disease and provide a cleaner living environment. In London, as the roads became busier with horse drawn carriages the Victorians dug underground tunnels to enable trains to take people to work more efficiently. The introduction of the car combined with an increase in population created the need for safety and the traffic light was invented, it’s concept derived from semaphore.
Street lights used to be powered by gas and lit by hand. The same lights now include sensors to turn them on at night and solar panels to charge them during the day. If you look at history these steps seem like perfectly logical points of evolution. We take enhancements in our day-to-day lives for granted.
We’ve used data to create train time tables and formulate routines in traffic lights. This was unobtrusive upon us, whilst at the same time it was expected. But could we share more data alongside the date, time and destination of our train ticket to make that journey smarter?
The AI learnt the difference between good and bad via information provided by its human creators
As our cities have become more polluted, governments have had to set carbon emission reduction targets. This has encouraged the adoption of hybrid or fully electric engines. We have made the combustion engine smarter, whilst also introducing technology that allows the driver to do less of the driving.
So what does this mean for the smart city of the future? Governments could insist every car be electric to address the carbon emission targets, but also be self driving to reduce fatalities. Data could be used to plot planned journeys on a public ledger that all other cars in the area could reference to create a perfect sequence of interchanges as each vehicle crosses paths with another. Speed limits could be changed to suit the volume of traffic rather than linked to a specific road. The stop and go nature of traffic lights would become redundant as gaps for safe passage would be plotted on the same public ledger. Journey times would be reduced and passenger safety would be increased.
This utopian world is the stuff of science fiction and has been pictured in many popular films. But it is also one we are close to now, if we allow it. Many cars today ship with self- driving capabilities and Tesla’s sister company, Boring Company (think creating tunnels) has been testing traffic busting tunnels where cars travel at high speed on skies. How do we balance the desire for a smarter city against the rise of the machines, or perhaps more possible malicious use of that public ledger?
Practically, as we evolve we want to use our data and let artificial intelligence tell us what to do with it. But morally we want to be protected from our data being misused. The other gap in this thinking is where we allow our data to be shared and assume artificial intelligence is going to give us back the correct answer. We’re happy when Netflix uses AI to suggest a film we might like based on our viewing habits, if it gets this slightly wrong it’s not an injustice. But when Amazon’s AI recruitment tool was found to have built in bias toward male candidates it was shut down as it exposed an ugly truth.
The AI learnt the difference between good and bad via information provided by its human creators. The ethical line had been crossed and a PR disaster had to be squashed. But what if the same logic could be used to detect criminal behaviour in our smart cities? Would it be acceptable to use AI to stop criminal acts before they happen (as depicted in the film Minority Report), even if later it was discovered that some of those activities were not criminal? Being innocent until proven guilty is our guidance here, but as our desire to be smarter pushes us to challenge the norm will we find it acceptable to adopt AI in our lives?
Our insatiable desire for innovation has seen our cities become smart. Each evolutionary step has transformed our way of life, but it is this ethical debate that surrounds data privacy that is going to be the defining line that enables our next revolution and will power smart cities of the future.
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