21st century cities: A is for Artificial Intelligence

Yesterday, I introduced a January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. Today’s the first letter A.

Songdo_fastco

What does the term artificial intelligence (AI) make you think of? How about singularity? These innovations represent a holy grail for many technologists. An exclusive institution called the Singularity Universityoffers an intensive summer grad program. The teachers and staff rank among the best thinkers in the world, including some of my friends and colleagues. In their first few years of operation, they have shined a bright spotlight on the idea of super-human intelligence.

What is AI?

AI is generally defined as machines that are smarter than human intelligence. The Turing Test, the primary bellwether, simply asks a computer to conduct a conversation without the human knowing she/he is talking to a computer. In urban terms, an AI system perceives its environment and responds to successfully complete a particular job.

For cities, the most intriguing are networks of machines that aggregate data, respond, and adapt without our intervention. The machines seem self-aware and learn, the technological singularity . Machines surpass our ability to understand or control them.

Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2020 or so, computers will reach human brain capacity and by 2045, they will self-invent, no longer dependent on our creativity or intervention.

Ai_milestones_mit

The Singularity University identifies three tracks divided into specializations: technology (robotics, nanotech, computers, biotech, and medicine/neuroscience), resources (futures, law, finance), and application (space and energy). Technology and innovation, the engine of business, are the heart of AI.

Should we fear super-intelligent self-improving machines the size of a city?

Do you remember HAL9000, the computer in Arthur C. Clark’s Space Odyssey and the film 2001 Space Odyssey? The fear of AI is the human fear of all machines: they will own us. Collective super-intelligence the size of a city will be the most potent weapon and/or collaborative experience ever invented.In Zuboff’s In The Age of the Smart Machine, she analyzes the qualitative differences we experienced when we moved from a society of artisans to button pushers.We are particularly clumsy at seeing the long-term consequences of innovations.

  •     It’s possible that machines will supply ideas, but that we will still be the makers, even more than we are today, through co-creating and DIY. Six billion brains will still be the largest form of intelligence on earth. Technology weaves that collective capacity even more tightly.
  •     We trade our freedoms and privacy every day for access to something else. A few voices will try to protect our sovereign rights but they will go largely unheard because we are only being protected from ourselves.

Will AI control transportation?

 

Road_trains_crunchgear

Computers already control our traffic systems. We drive our cars over a buried sensor and it switches the traffic signal. Or a set of sensors time our highway progress and notifies other drivers of travel times. Are they AI? Not really. That’s fairly simple analysis of historic behavior not anticipating or adapting. Airplanes and trains have long been controlled by autopilot computers. Google, Stanford, and MIT have road tested autonomic driving, or self-driving robotic cars. Our cars are already robots in terms of automation. Computers are rapidly making cars smarter and better drivers than us from self-parking to crash avoidance. Frankly, based on 40k US deaths/year, we desperately need their help.

  •     Cars are well on their way to becoming one big swarm more concerned with each other than with us.
  •     Eventually, rather than competing modes of transportation, light rail, buses and cars may have more in common than not.
  •     Mobility freedom is not only control but also access, representation in decisions, and choice.
Trans_ultra_taxi

Big brother may not be the power company; it may be you and me.If we are generating and capturing energy to share and sell others, the AI/smart grid becomes our partner, the tool for a new source of income. However, if we are at the mercy of power company electricity, we can look forward to brown outs and black outs. At the rate of new technology adoption, power loads just keep rising. Appliances and computers may not run during peak hours. And worse – you will know when your neighbor is hogging power and vice versa.

  •     Will we be shamed into energy conservation? Or we will simply be controlled through rations.
  •     Control and privacy are forefront in a world of limited shared resources and AI. How data gathered thru AI is revealed is up to our collective agreements.
  •     More energy efficient buildings, better batteries, low energy use appliances will eventually reduce our power needs.
  •     Real time urban data will be gathered from people, buildings, and things to create useful knowledge about how we use cities that will inform design and user decisions.

AI Design Build

At long last, design and construction are becoming data-rich. Next they will become self-improving, then self-assembling, and finally self-designing. Yet self-expression is a human talent, not a computerized algorithm. Creativity as well as the relationships, communication, and decision-making require humans.

Following in the wake of manufacturing, construction is being automated. First with material deliveries, then tools, and finally with self-constructing buildings. Experiments with robots have reached demonstration levels. Consumer goods distribution centers have hesitated on robot investment because they have peak seasons and the robots sit idle otherwise. Construction operates project by project to maintain a steady workflow, only slowing for economic cycles. Without too much trouble, a city will be self-constructing, particularly useful for infrastructure and repetitive projects.

  •     Without human intervention and oversight, cities will become dull and cookie cutter. Our job will be to alter the cities before we learn to hate them. We require imperfection to love a place.
  •     A full accounting of all materials and resources in a region will enable local distributions, recycling, adapting, and re-allocating of supplies and scheduling maintenance.
  •     Dominating those asset allocations will make or break various urban areas. Urban negotiations open a whole new field.
Robot_pike_loop

Will AI cities like us, be our friend?

The self-aware, self-improving, sentient city will adopt the patterns of the existing city. Machines are purely rational. Humans are intuitive, emotional, and imperfect plus we are culturally determined. A machine can only copy or replicate these characteristics, which might be flawless. That’s the problem with the conversant computer. It does not know how to improvise, make errors, be human.

We love our houses, favorite shops, parks, even our cars. These attachments will become exponentially deeper. They will remember key dates and react on cue. They will know our habits and when we break routine. If your house can talk to you, play scrabble, fix you meals, layout your clothes, wake you up, start the coffee, prepare your shower, order the groceries, complete your reports, and sing you to sleep, will you believe it cares for you?

  •     We will need retraining on the meaning of artificial.
  •     Will we ever be able to move? Will we strip the house-friend of its knowledge and mourn its death?
  •     Will AI computers strive for self-preservation? And to self-replicate? Will they hoard or aggressively acquire materials to create their projects?
  •     Will they share our most precious secrets? Doesn’t Facebook do it every single day? We won’t need to report our sins; the shaman and tax officer and probably your mom, daughter, enemies, and neighbors will already know.

The city’s brain

As we build swarms of self-improving intelligent machines, we will need a meta-AI to monitor and coordinate. That’s HAL9000. Will we be able to control it? I rather doubt it. Furthermore, how safe will that concentrated power be? Imagine the cyber attacks and security threats when so much power is held by one entity.

  •     When all the machines are hooked together as an army of super-intelligent computers, are they controllable?
  •     Moreover, will we become part of the super-intelligence? Notice that Singularity U includes neuroscience. Later, we will look at transhumanism and our active participation in collective intelligence.
Planit_masterplan

Cities will be smart. They will be more beautiful, more exquisitely made in parts and more assembled ad hoc in other parts. More resourceful and more transparently knowable. Unlike today’s “dumb cities” that sit like the dead materials that they are, future cities will be alive in a Biomimicry sense, evolving, learning, and growing. The caveat is huge. A city as a functioning extension of the people may be the most intoxicating experience we can imagine. The most creative and potentially invasive intelligent computers will work in partnership with people. We have to be able to let go, opt out. Increasingly, it will be impossible unless we demand it.

Tomorrow, B is for Backward.

Images: Robotic construction in NYC on ArchDaily, Ford Sync Destination Eco-navigation system and New Songdo in Fast Co, automated road trains on Crunchgear, PlanIT Masterplan, Geminoid robot.

Comments

  1. A. T. says:

    I’ve been thinking about something like a road train for some time (as I’m sure many people have.) Now, if we were able to replace pavement with a magnetic strip or other technology that delivered the necessary navigational AI along designated paths, and the vehicles could stay on this minimalistic track by hovering over it 4 meters off the ground or so, the impact of roads on the environment, it would seem, would be reduced, as flora and fauna could utilize the ground without our needing to modify the landscape as dramatically as roads do now. In areas with dense population, this would allow more pedestrian use of space.Admittedly, there would be a lot to work out to implement such a scenario, and I am no scientist, but I suspect that the technology to do it is less far-fetched than many people would think. In the light of growing populations and reduced environmental resources, should this not also be a consideration in transportation innovations?

  2. BarryMorgan says:

    Hi Cindy,You are coming out of the gate at warp speed here… Very Cool.This sentence caught my mind: ” If your house can talk to you, play scrabble, fix you meals, layout your clothes, wake you up, start the coffee, prepare your shower, order the groceries, complete your reports, and sing you to sleep, will you believe it cares for you?”The question made me think about how we perceive the limits of artificial intelligence. If a human were doing all of the things, that you mentioned, for us we would call it caring but somehow a machine caring for us seems alien. This may be the other side of the coin as far as machines being able to achieve sentience. Will they get there, with our help, before we truly believe they are capable of being there? Will they become self aware, realize our prejudices and point them out to us? Really interesting stuff, all of it, and it is both scary and thrilling…Thanks, as always, for a great post.-b

  3. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, phd, faia says:

    Hi Barry, yeah, its all possible eventually. a study gave ppl a robot to live w/ and boom, they fell in love w/ them. First thing in the morning, “hello, robot, how ya doing?” we are prone to caring, arent we? A Japanese inventor makes the most lifelike robots too, those will really test us. and it happens gradually. A breakthru here, another there, and pretty soon, yr talking to a machine lk its yr brother. then the machine starts correcting you?? rutrow, that options coming out! give me the ‘yes cindy’ bot… ;-) Most ai will just be in the background, sensing, doing things, making life easier. Except when they break. more machines, more headaches. like nano-coatings will just recoat and change w/ weather conditions, absorb and distribute energy, collect and send data. We’ll just install and forget abt it. Doubt if we fall in love w/ smart paint, yes?? thanks for reading, yeah, cool.

  4. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, phd, faia says:

    A.T. – yes, that’s almost Jetson world, isn’t it? hovering transportation. I’m in favor of anything that reduces roads, their constant maintenance which is sucking up resources in all the developed countries, esp US, and reducing harm to the environment. has to have a fail-safe so no one falls 4 meters to the ground when things go wrong, yes? ouch. and no littering please, I’m walking/riding my bike down here! heh. I agree, its more of a design problem once the science gets resolved. Many old futures drawn in the early and mid 20th century had stacked transportation modes. The only place that’s true so far is w/ subways. thanks for reading and for sharing your ideas, v inventive.

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