Data Analytics & AI

The city as technology

In his keynote speech on Wednesday at TM Forum’s Smart City InFocus in Yinchaun, Anthony Behan, Worldwide Industry Solutions Leader in IBM’s Watson Internet of Things (IoT) Division, will examine the concept, and realities, of the city as ‘our most fundamental technology’. Here’s a preview.

Technology is tools, sure, but it is also a set of artifacts that humans have designed to help engage with the world around us. Technology mediates between people and the environment, allowing us to shelter from its excesses, and profit from its bounty, and to express ourselves as human beings and build functioning societies that support our families and our tribes.

Technology is deeply personal. Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts famously said of smartphones that the “proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” such was the extent to which they had become a “pervasive and insistent part of daily life.”

Think about the concept of a cyborg, an enhanced human. We picture the Terminator, the BORG from Star Trek, or something similar. Yet, my glasses give me enhanced vision, my clothes enhance the capacity of my skin to protect my body and vital organs from the weather and other hazards, and there’s of course those with titanium hips and pacemakers. We are all in some way cyborgs. We are each of us extending our sensory capability with technology, and the smartphone extends our capacity to know things; it extends our intelligence, our range of communications, our cognition.

Crucially, at the center of all of this, is the city itself, perhaps our most fundamental technology. The buildings and roads all play a part in allowing ourselves to achieve the things we desire. At a basic level, this is in the form of shelter and protection, but in more advanced terms to relate with our fellow man, raise families and produce art. Before we consider improving our cities with technology, therefore, we need to recognize that the city itself is a technology, and not some kind of mere neutral platform upon which technologies can be deployed.

As we consider then how cities can better serve the ambitions and dreams and desires of their inhabitants, it is important to think about how personal city technologies can be. This isn’t just about personalization, though that’s certainly a part of it. This is about figuring out how to build strongly empathetic cities, deploying technologies that are sensitive to the aspirations of the people they serve. These cities will need to grow with people as aspirations change.

Using AI and data for empathetic cities

Cognitive and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are fundamentally different from technologies we have deployed in the past. They understand like humans do, in multifaceted ways – sensing, listening, reading and feeling their way through problems. They reason like humans do, and not just in a sense-and-respond structure; they interpret the sensory cues and assess and evaluate alternate potential interpretations.

AI systems learn like humans do, though they are less likely to make the same mistake twice (yes, they do make mistakes, like humans do). And, they keep learning, growing and evolving – like humans do. They interact in human ways – through natural language interfaces, with idioms, colloquialisms and high-quality communications.

There’s no AI without data, of course. These are complex, dynamic models of environment and context. The data sources in the city – enhanced by recent developments in the IoT, both in terms of the available low-cost silicon and numerous local and wide-area communications architectures, provide extraordinary resources to feed the models. From state and city sources in the public infrastructure, to private and commercial sources from business, academic and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – plus, of course, the citizens themselves contributing to a symbiotic data environment – there is more than enough data, properly curated and observed, to deliver extraordinary modern solutions to city challenges.

Getting there

These fantastic solutions come with their own responsibilities. We are all learning as a global society about how these technologies should be deployed and how we should use them. At IBM earlier this year, we adopted three principles to help guide us on this path.

1. Purpose

Our purpose is to augment human intelligence rather than replace it. We live in the real world, not that of science fiction, and our belief is that cognitive systems will not realistically achieve consciousness or independent agency.

2. Transparency

We will always be clear about when and for what purposes AI is being deployed; we’ll be clear about the data we use; and our clients will always own their own intellectual property.

3. Skills

We recognize that we need to train people to use AI systems in new ways, and we need to train the AI systems themselves. These are new ways of working, and there are exciting, powerful new roles coming for people.

So the city is itself a technology, and must become more empathetic in order to be successful. Our future as human beings in cities, our potential in this world, is dependent in so many ways on this relationship with our city technology. This is obvious in fundamental ways – like improved healthcare, reduced travel times, and a cleaner environment. But the subtle ways in which a city can allow us to breathe, to grow, and to flourish as people are just as important. We have more time to ourselves and our families, our education is better, and our opportunities are improved. These are the markers of a truly smart city.


    About The Author

    Industry Offerings Leader, Watson IoT Division, IBM

    While focused on the telecommunications industry for almost twenty years, Anthony has in the past led the IBM solutions business worldwide in BSS, OSS, analytics and commerce. Previously he was founder and director of Am-Beo, a rating and charging software innovator. His interests include big data, privacy, law and economics.

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