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AI for smarter cities: finding the real value

At the Smart City InFocus event in Yinchuan, China, city leaders pinpointed AI as the most “impactful” and “disruptive” technology that they need to respond to

Los Angeles citizens ask Alexa what is happening in City Hall. Image courtesy: City of LA
Los Angeles citizens ask Alexa what is happening in City Hall. Image courtesy: City of LA

As writer William Gibson put it: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”


Many of us are interacting with artificial intelligence (AI) on a daily basis, from Netflix recommending our next binge-watch to Uber connecting us with the closest available driver or online chatbots helping to solve our customer service issues.


Increasingly, cities too are looking to AI to improve services for residents and streamline operations, and at a recent workshop I attended at the Smart City InFocus event in Yinchuan, China, city leaders clearly pinpointed AI as the most “impactful” and “disruptive” technology (or set of technologies) that they need to respond to.


Such is the perceived importance that last month, the United Arab Emirates government launched its AI Strategy and appointed its first Minister for AI. The 2031 strategy targets using AI to “disrupt government”, eyeing a $15.7 trillion global economic opportunity by 2030, a 50 per cent reduction in government costs and massively increased resistance to financial crises. It sees particular potential in education, energy, transport, space and technology.


We are not yet witnessing results on this scale yet but we are seeing promising implementations, especially in areas such as safety, mobility and citizen engagement.


The only way is AI

Ted Ross, chief information officer, City of Los Angeles, says AI is the only way cities will be able to deal effectively with the scale of data being generated: “In 2017, the only way to engage a city of over four million people is through digital services. As we increasingly digitise and connect our services together, we yield massive amounts of data. AI and machine learning offer a unique ability to provide the insight within all this complexity.”


AI technologies have the ability to spot deeper patterns and trends than we ever could, and the applications of this could be life-saving.


Last year, 260 people were killed in traffic accidents in LA. Through its ‘Vision Zero’ programme, LA has the ambitious goal to eradicate road traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025.


“Sometimes we use the expression accident, but it’s really not an accident,” Ross says. “Many of these things are preventable.”


LA is crunching large volumes of data about areas where high numbers of these fatalities occur, including data from collision reports and built environment data (such as street width, presence of street lights, etc.). It is using the insights to make improvements to those areas and promote educational initiatives to cut accidents and their seriousness.


Intelligent cities

Julie Xu, chief operating officer of STAE, a software data centralization platform for cities, sees the opportunity for much more “intelligent cities”. She gives the example of an emergency fire scenario, although notes we are a “way off” from this scale at the moment.


With networks of connected M2M devices, such as alarms, smoke detectors, thermometers and more, in homes and buildings, the city could set a ‘trigger level’ at which an alert is sent to the fire department to dispatch the right number and type of emergency vehicles, based on precise, real-time information about, say, smoke levels.


“Take it a level further,” Xu says. “Once we get to drones in the city, which is obviously a lot further away, you could dispatch a drone to go and take a picture of the building, immediately have that sent back to the police station for them to appropriately assess how many vehicles should be dispatched.”


And, she adds, “Connected traffic lights could manage traffic along the route to drastically reduce response times.”


Ask Alexa

Cities are also using AI to provide information to citizens in new ways, and reach new people. In LA, for example, Chip the chatbot launched earlier this year.


“It started like any good technology project,” Ross said. “It started with a need.”

The city began to use Chip to answer queries from its community of over 50,000 vendors about RFP (request for proposal) bids. Although the service was not heavily advertised, Chip received 184 questions within a day. Businesses were able to get an answer around the clock and 75 per cent fewer queries were routed to staff. The system also created greater equity in the procurement process, Ross said.


The city quickly went from 200 pre-loaded answers to over 800 and has now ‘promoted’ Chip beyond just the business area and into other city services.

LA was also one of the first cities to build an Alexa Skill. Citizens can ask what’s happening at City Hall that day, for example, or what the library opening times are. Ross says that this service not only reduces phone calls but also appeals to a whole new generation who had limited or no engagement before.


“For government, it’s important to engage as many generations and as many stakeholders as possible,” he said.


Empathetic cities

The ever-greater encroachment of technology can present a rather cold, dystopian vision of our future. However, Anthony Behan, Worldwide Industry Solutions Leader, IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) Division, believes AI actually presents a huge opportunity for more “empathetic” cities. For example, through giving us a better idea of how people move around the city, we should get to a stage where you never again have to wait in the rain for a bus before three come along at once.


“You’re not going to see robots walking down the street,” Behan said. “What you’ll see is that, incrementally, the metrics by which we govern society will improve. We’ll have fewer traffic accidents, fewer traffic jams and services that run more efficiently, are cheaper, and less consumptive of fossil fuels. These are the results of artificial intelligence that will make our lives better.”


Into the unknown

These examples highlight AI’s positive impact and potential but there are still many unknowns.


Speaking at this year’s Web Summit, physicist Stephen Hawking said: "AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”


He added: “I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world. That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”

As a city leader, how do you move ahead and capitalise on these transformative technologies, remaining mindful of the risks?


“Cities will continue to innovate.” Ross said. “We can check that one off the list. Cities are going to do great things with technology but the impact to humans I think is a much more open question.”


He looks at it this way: “Over the last year, I’ve really modified my approach and completely changed how we focus on it. We are reinvigorating ourselves and reinforcing our commitment to human-centric design and to human-centric technology.”


Part of this is using pilots and proof of concepts as well as holding regular ‘town hall’ meetings with staff and citizens to open up the debate on how people actually feel about these technologies.


He comments: “With so much change coming from the effects of these technologies, it’s hard to predict exactly the future state. But we cannot lose sight of our north star; the fact that technology is here to serve people. It’s not here to serve itself.”


If you like this, you might be interested in reading the following:


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IDC believes the IoT needs AI capabilities to deliver true value

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