The idea of smart cities – infrastructure interlinked by software – isn’t new, but it’s undeniably cool. Who wouldn’t want to live somewhere where programs use data and evidence, not intuition, to actively improve their day-to-day lives?
Now imagine that an entire smart city actually exists, but it’s even more advanced than you could possibly imagine, where infrastructural systems are altered on the fly by an artificial intelligence (AI). This may sound futuristic, but one such place can already be found in China.
As reported back in October 2016, the government of the city of Hangzhou – home to over 9 million people – collaborated with Alibaba and Foxconn to build the “City Brain” project. The metropolis would be, from that moment forth, at least partly run by an AI that absorbed every last drop of data it could get its virtual hands on.
Every single resident was tracked; their activity on social networks, their purchases, their movements, their commutes – everything was uploaded to the AI’s database, which then made real-time decisions.
Over time, it was allowed to develop a neural network across the city. Everything from the water supply to the sizes of crowds in certain areas was taken into account, and the City Brain slowly found its footing.
Now, as reported by New Scientist, the project has been hailed a remarkable success. Traffic congestion, road accidents, and crime are all down.
City Brain isn’t just connected to authorities either, notifying them when there’s an emergency or a crisis that needs handling. It’s also wired up to everyone’s mobile phones, informing them of upcoming road traffic or adverse weather conditions in real-time.
Aside from monitoring things in the here and now, it has also used months’ worth of data to work out optimal future scenarios for smoother commutes and safer streets.
The project is apparently doing so well that it’s already being considered in other cities around China. It’s likely to find popularity on the international market, albeit with variations on the types of data it receives.
Incidentally, you would think that the residents of Hangzhou would have been asked to consent to this intense form of data monitoring, but remember, this is China. When it comes to online privacy and protestation, the average person doesn’t really get much say.
Xian-Sheng Hua, an AI manager at Alibaba, told an audience at the World Summit AI meeting a few weeks back that “in China, people have less concern with privacy, which allows us to move faster.”
Putting the ethics aside for a moment, it’s admittedly hard not to argue that China is a good place to try out extremely ambitious projects.