Smart Cities

Smart Cities

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Our daily life seems to increasingly  revolve around smart phones, and soon   smart houses and smart cars, but what  about the towns and cities we live in?  Some months back, I was at an event where a  lot of discussion was taking place about urban   planning and the various technologies we might  incorporate into it; everything from vehicle   charging stations to phone charging stations,  wifi coverage, and many points in between.  Ironically, for someone who dislikes living  in cities personally, preferring my farm here   in Plymouth, I always find city management and  planning fascinating, or at least I have since   playing SimCity on the Super Nintendo a few  decades back. So the conversations on urban   planning at that event caught my interest and  I heard the term smart city getting used there,   which I’d heard in-passing elsewhere in  recent years but had never really heard it   defined. I asked some folks for more info on the  general concept and I got a lot of fascinating  

but also often vague details and explanations,  some nt matching others. Needless to say,   our goal in today’s episode isn’t really  to try to better-define a term that’s still   rather embryonic, but rather to discuss the  concepts under its umbrella and what we’ll see   coming of it in both the near and far future. The term “Smart City” has been growing in   popularity in recent years, doubtlessly due  to the influence of the word smartphone,   and while many of the concepts involved are  older than the widespread use of cellphones,   it seems that the new term is here  to stay. A quick check of Wikipedia,   which currently lists only 4 US cities including  Columbus, here in Ohio, as Smart cities, gives us   a rather complicated opening definition, seemingly  heavy in technospeak that I will boil down as   saying “Smart cities are those which collect and  collate data and then use it in their management”. 

Which, of course, pretty much defines any city or  village or town that actually has someone managing   it, who is not utterly incompetent or lazy. Of  course, you collect data about your town and use   it to make decisions from. So, obviously it’s a  matter of degrees here and as for the decisions,   we might throw in some automation too.  As a fairly simple example, conceptually,   traffic lights that monitored flow rates based on  the time of day and week and were able to adjust   themselves to optimize traffic flow, would be an  example of a smart city device. Taking that the   next step up, we could have a timer on each  that nearby cars could detect and set up on   their console or HUD automatically, giving  the remaining countdown before it turns, and   we could also have ones that we could inform of  upcoming roadwork or big events, like a festival,   which would alter those ideal timings. But the back end of that is that you can   be using all those traffic counts and times  to be predicting when you’ll need to repair   roads or expand existing segments. And of course,  that’s something civil engineers have been doing  

for years, but the more improvements in making  data-collection up-to-date and cheaply-collected,   the better. This is also where we start seeing  AI having a role, as, while AI is now finally in   the public awareness for its chatbot ability as a  real thing that exists, not technology of twenty   years from now, it is generally much better for  applications like real-time traffic-monitoring   and learning how to predict and optimize traffic  patterns, than it is at writing a song for you.  Right now, to avoid smog, for instance, we  optimize around minimum time spent just idling,   which is all for the good, but it's less of  a concern for electric cars or those which   automatically shut off when not moving. Situations  change a lot if we decide to start using more   automation in cars. I don’t like the term  self-driving car, it’s not really accurate anyway,  

plus it bugs people, but having an auto-pilot that  can keep you stay inside the lines doesn’t really   seem to bug folks any more than cruise control,  and our real objective is to allow maximum safe   and convenient driving, which, at least for the  immediate future, is always going to be at its   best when any onboard computer is merely assisting  a human, as opposed to being in direct control.  I think most folks want the robot that’s able to  slam the break for the dog or kid running into   the road, and that notices when your eyes are  off the road and can beep at you, or just keep   things rolling-on, not the machine equivalent  of a chauffeur, though many will like that too,   and in time, that might become the norm. For  now though, it’s all about how much automation   we actually have in terms of capability  and price, and which ways it can safely,   and non-irritatingly, be incorporated into  our driving and public transportation,   or even our walking and biking. And to communicate  to the other devices around it, so that your car   can see a kid running out into the road, but the  kid’s smartwatch also warns the car and so do the   motion sensors on the streetlight. Redundancy  and alternative avenues are critical to safety   and automation can really help with that. That’s even more the case for cities, so, as   we contemplate smart cities, and here on SFIA  at least we are going to contemplate actual AI   potentially being incorporated as a city, we  need to ask how much autonomy is available,   preferable, and agreeable to both the city’s  administrators and the citizens in it. In an  

ultimate sense we like the idea of a city where  strips of grass, trees and flowers are all over   the place and carefully tended by robots, so  it presumably costs less and can be done at   night when it won’t interfere with traffic. In the nearer term though, we could imagine   the monitors on a stretch of nicely tended green  noticing how often folks slowed or paused there   compared to other places and what they most took  interest in. A slightly more advanced version   might also anonymously query the smartphones and  fitbits of passersbys to see if the passage or   pause there had lowered their stress or anxiety.  And in more complex terms we might even see data   sufficiently utilized to determine if a  given greenspace or piece of public art   had contributed to lower crime rates, or stress  rates, or even heart attack and divorce rates.  Needless to say, that does raise some ethical  concerns about data-use and privacy, and I don’t   want to spend too much time on that today, not  because it’s not a major deal, but because it’s an   issue in basically every part of life these days  and cities aren’t special in this regard compared   to other entities. Your local city government  either is or isn’t tyrannical already. Such   technology, like many others, is merely a tool for  enhancing what can be done, which includes brutal   police-state oppression, if that’s on the agenda. There’s a tech-tree cutscene for the Self-Aware  

Colony in Sid Meier’s classic video game ‘Alpha  Centauri’, where someone is spraying graffiti   around, about needing to dissent, presumably to  the government, where the city basically stalks   the guy in the dark of night, neutralizes him, and  erases the graffiti, all without witnesses. That   always stuck with me when I first read 1984  some years later. That really isn’t all that   impressive on the Big Brother scale of what an AI  running a city with full decision-making ability,   with cameras and drones all-over, might be able  to do either. So basically, if your city council,   mayor or dictator is the sort of person who read  1984 like an instruction manual, you’ve already   got problems, but if not, then AI with lots of  public transparency, carefully-considered use,   and healthy caution, can be an amazing tool to  make cities safer and more pleasant places to   live, and with cost-savings to boot. Nor are  these applications limited to large cities,   many will work well in towns and villages. Going back to the more pleasant aspects,  

like adding green spaces, and other  beautification options, this is where we   have the concept of “Third Places”, which include  public-operated space, like libraries and parks,   as well as private businesses like  cafes, churches or gyms. The notion   here is that it is a social surrounding that’s  separate from either your home or workplace,   those generally being considered the first and  second place you spend time at and socialize   in. The term is relatively recent, having been  coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in   his 1989 book “The Great Good Place”, who passed  away shortly before I decided to do this episode,   at the age of 90. Nonetheless it can still feel a  touch dated with so many of us working from home   and using virtual places for socializing, as well  as the growing use of third places for doing work.  Going to study in the library is nothing  new for instance, but by and large,   most jobs of the past did not really have an  option to go sit in the sun and relax on a bench   in a garden park while working. Even just taking  your cellphone to the park to make phone calls,   which was new and uncommon tech when the term  emerged, could be difficult due to road and crowd   noise. Now we aim to make third places, publicly  or privately owned, the sort of place where you  

can spend tons of time while socializing or  working or both, and they can help a person   feel more like a part of their community  as well as being a vent from home and work.  Needless to say, they tend to attract people  and businesses to come to such communities,   when well-done anyway, though obviously at a cost.  Balanced right though, it’s the option that lets   you decrease office tensions by encouraging  employees to take working breaks to the park   where there’s wifi, and lets parents have some  place to take their kids to play and socialize,   and a thousand other things including everything  from local theater groups to monthly flea markets. 

I don’t want to overly focus on greenspace here,  or even third places in general, but greenspaces   tend to be reliable, cheap, and universal options  for third places, at least when the weather is   nice. Cheap is relative of course, devoting a  few acres to a football or baseball field in the   middle of a city is obviously not cheap, and even  if you’re just removing a vacant and low-interest   lot, like an old broken-down warehouse, you still  have to mow the thing and it’s not generating you   much direct tax revenue like a strip mall  or some apartment buildings would. It can   indirectly of course, by raising local property  values and encouraging folks to move nearby.  But both are much more expensive than, say, a  basketball court, which take up way less space   and are easier for a city to find room for, and  which also don’t need to be mowed, or sprayed   with pesticides or fungicides. Of course, robotic  lawn mowers and hedge trimmers – and yeah those  

are a thing now too – alter that paradigm. In  a way this isn’t new either, the village green   everyone could use and which festivals and  games could be held on is older than dirt. No   doubt we’ll also see them in early space colonies  too, especially when a dome on a planet or garden   spot on a space habitat is still incredibly  expensive and so needs to be a shared space.  It is really easy to talk about adding parks  to towns or rooftop gardens but it’s generally   a lot more complex than folks tend to think, and  a lot of that is maintenance and administration,   and keeping up with changing tastes and moving  populations, not to mention managing resistance   to doing so. Having good data as to what folks  like in a given park, and what attracts them to   other parks, is handy for improving your parks  but equally handy for convincing local community   members that your planned overhaul is justified.  If you want to replace the old baseball field with   a skatepark and lots of cool marble benches and  herb gardens it helps to have some actual data to   show the folks who have lived there their whole  life and grew up playing baseball on that field,   and aren't anxious to see it changed. Same, if you’re trying to repurpose some  

old site with neighborhood garden plots. Not only  does that data help decide if that’s warranted and   remains so, but technology and data-collection  make it easier to set up soil-monitoring and   automatic watering and mowing, and having a shared  tool shed that doesn’t turn into a cluttered mess,   full of everything but the tools it  was supposed to have which have all   been stolen or borrowed indefinitely. Again the  modern notion of smart city isn’t really about   robots going around fixing stuff, it’s about  gathering data to make better decisions with.  But that is likely to be a path we go down with  further automation, and as an example, most cities   love the idea of repurposing some derelict, ruined  building into some greenspace, like community   vegetable gardens, but you have a big problem of  maintaining plots not in use so that they either   look nice, or at least not be a giant overgrown  mess of weeds which some skunk decided to claim   as its home, and enforcing reasonable standards  or having some robot that tills patches and sprays   them with some nice pollinator-friendly seed  mix of flowers while vacant is definitely a   plus. Especially in terms of headaches since your  overseers can just shrug and say “I’m sorry ma’am,   the robot is just set to turn a garden plot  over if no one has tended it in a year… didn’t   you get its automated texts and emails?” Greenspaces for play are hardly the only   options of course, and they’re also not really  very vertical. A park might have some up and   down elements but is generally just one level,  not several stories like the buildings near it.  

This is also much of the appeal to arcology  towers, the giant super-skyscraper concept   where the inside might have whole levels of parks  and gardens and even farms. For further discussion   of those and adding verticality to cities, see  our Arcologies and Arcology Design episodes. So, what are some of the goals of smart cities?  These are inevitably going to be a bit vague,   and variations on improving the wellbeing of  citizens and the economic health of a town,   with data and communication, as it really is just  how to better-use computers and modern technology   to help in planning and running a city. This is  going to involve a lot of the Internet of Things,   because it’s about integrating a million  and one types of gadgets into the wide   grid of that city. I’m not sure if there’s a  specific term for something like a blend of   noosphere and internet at a city level, maybe  noopolis, but the keystone on a lot of this   is making those integrations fast and seamless. I’m going to guess the big one in another decade  

or so will be how to create a shared  augmented reality at the city level,   probably with several map layers, that is  useful to citizens, administrators, businesses,   and visitors. This strikes me as something that on  the standardized software side of things, might be   on the Microsoft Office, Google Search Engine,  Amazon Marketplace, Facebook level of cultural   impact for any software engineers looking for  long-range, potentially super-profitable projects,   especially given that the clients are likely to  be public entities. Though I suppose it’s worth   noting one way that data and AI might help run  cities smartly is to help them find waste and   fraud, including some piece of software they have  an expensive license for that barely gets used.  We might instead ask what some of the examples  are of cities doing this and how those might   be realized. As I mentioned near the beginning,  one of the few examples of Smart Cities I could  

find was my state’s capital of Columbus, and  if you’ve been there, it is a pretty-well-laid   and modern town, but the articles discussing  why and how it is a smart city seem to mostly   focus on attempts to best locate 300 charging  stations for electric cars, principally on a   grant from the US Department of Transportation,  and some forward thinking about how autonomous   cars might play a role in the near future. My own bet is that the main role autonomous cars,   ones intended to drive themselves entirely  and possibly without someone in them,   in the near future, is to get themselves banned  very nearly everywhere. I think it’s a big lift   to get people okay with their kids’ school bus  being driven by a robot, and if you can make that   work you can probably sell people on automatic  freight trucks and deliveries very easily.   Many places have a heck of time finding enough  school bus drivers these days, and I suppose if   parents could access the cameras such a vehicle  would presumably have, they might feel better. 

But that whole area has a lot of room for  automation and AI, be it bussing routes   or snow plows, and I would not be surprised if  cameras which parents could view on their baby   monitor app started showing up on buses and at  the fronts of schools for dropoff, complete with   facial recognition software to let you know  your kid got dropped off. Facial recognition   software at schools in general, and at parks,  is probably a this-decade technology, though   depending on its rollout it might be beloved or  spark outrage, suspicion, or all of the above.  I’m actually betting that a lot of smart city  tech is going to be stuff the public initially   hates and demand gets removed, and has to get a  decade of PR rehab and rebranding before being   gradually and systematically reintroduced. Notice  all those traffic cameras we don’t have in most   American cities that can save a lot of money,  make the roads safer, and free police up for   other tasks. I remember over a decade back,  the nearest city to me spent a ton of money  

putting them in, and a citizen-driven petition  and election promptly saw them all removed.  As another example of that, one of the other  ‘smart cities’ I saw listed was Santa Cruz,   specifically for its use of data for predictive  policing, to figure out how many police should   be on shift and where police officers should  be waiting when not responding to crimes. The   basic method was to generate by analysis  some spots where property crimes were more   likely and have a handful each day an officer  would be at. It was discontinued back in 2018.  

Again, I expect that the job of making folks feel  safe and comfortable with a given new bit of smart   city tech, especially the ‘data collection’  part of that, is going to be as big of one   as the actual engineering of the technology. New York City is unsurprisingly a place trying   its hand at smart city initiatives,  and the big one there is LinkNYC,   which actually builds off an effort to replace  the 10,000 or so remaining payphones… I assume   they used to have way more too… and it’s weird  to think back to a time when these things were   everywhere and also to realize that payphones,  collect phone calls, and the battle between AT&T   and MCI and various other less-known long distance  providers belongs to another century now. But,   the Big Apple started converting those into  wifi hotpsots and USB charging stations with big   screens almost a decade ago, and we have certainly  seen variations of that in many other places.  In the city, being able to stroll along the  sidewalk while maintaining high-speed wifi   access is getting to be as important a bit of  infrastructure as those actual sidewalks, much   as last mile broadband rural internet has come  to be viewed in recent years as akin to getting   telephone and power lines out to everyone.  Even ignoring Starlink and parallel options,   my guess is that we’ll also see state initiatives  to get not just every city with public wifi,   but maintain some degree of it along  the major roadways and highways.  It’s just too critical to commerce, or will  be, and that sort of easy and everywhere wifi   is critical to any smart city design too. If  wireless power transmission makes much progress,  

it may also develop along those lines, people able  to have their devices powered or recharge in their   pocket all the time, no plugs, which might require  some usage monitoring, unless we have energy   abundance. Pondering how that affects the local  economy gets tricky, as it also starts opening   the door to drones that can hang around all the  time, smartly controlled to avoid collision by   the local grid, which also runs power into them. Options continue for things like determining how   much power you need and how much production  capacity you need for that, or for water and   sewerage, or what your optimal garbage and  recycling pickup paths and frequency are.  

And also where you might be needing two  different systems, rather than something   one-size-fits-all for different parts of the  city with different layouts and densities, which   is easier to have if an AI is doing a lot of the  basic administrating, so you don’t have the extra   administrative burden of using multiple methods. On the administrative note, and as a last   near-modern topic before we jump ahead to the  more distant future, I think we should assume an   increasing amount of virtual spaces for public  offices like the BMV. Why stand in line to do   some paperwork that’s mostly filling out your  name and address when a mix of modern tech and   augmented reality and maybe ChatGPT-like  interfaces can handle almost all basic   clerk-at-the-counter interactions, so that one  person can handle many times the basic clerk work. 

I had to get a minivan recently to accommodate  the trio of new kids we adopted, and the various   nieces and nephews who often come over, and I was  at the BMV registering it and have no complaints   about the process. It’s faster and easier than  when I was 16, but I was struck by how easily   that could have been done from my home PC or  phone if we had a fairly seamless and trusted   way to handle the whole “Need to see some ID,  fill this out” part, and the inevitable “Can   you explain this bit here on the form?” part. In some ways, speed isn’t a virtue on upgrading   these things, there are hardworking folks  who have been clerks their whole career and   the cost for retraining and disruption to  their lives is often cutting heavily into   your apparent savings for some new tech,  but I think this era is definitely coming,   where an awful lot of government offices close  down physically and shift more and more virtually.   This might end in something like the local 24-hour  county community center as the place to go if you   have something very atypical or just can’t figure  out the tech remotely, and most every other office   is done from home, or third places, or whichever.  It also means you can share specialized personnel   easier with neighboring towns. Needless to  say that alters your city planning a lot,   when the office of city planning is no longer at  city hall and city hall is more like a museum. 

I’m not expecting these upgrades to come  very fast, but they’re too valuable -if   you can make them work- not to try to  implement, and as improvements come along,   they should get better, cheaper and  easier to make people comfortable with.  Where that shifts over to becoming a city hall  that is actually an artificial intelligence gets   a bit blurry, but I suspect folks will  find letting a computer run their road   crew dispatches is going to come easier than  letting them run your tanks and fighter jets.   I would not expect android police to be a thing,  especially for beat cops and crowd control,   but the AI detective might be a thing. Probably  not the way we see with Eljiah Bailey and his   humanoid android partner R. Daneel Olivaw in Isaac  Asimov’s classic robot novels, but AI is already  

making its way into detective work and of course,  computers have been used in that role since before   there were home PCs, let alone smartphones. Would you have an actual AI as the incorporated   mind of a city? Maybe, something like a Genus  Loci, the spirit of a place, that we often see   in some religions or mythologies, and which  we have discussed as an option for maintaining   space habitats, especially intentionally  unpopulated ones like nature preserves.   More likely, I think, than an actual AI that  thought of itself as New York City or London,   you would probably have something more like  Department Deputies, the AI that helps the   engineer’s office for a town and might slowly  evolve to become the actual chief engineer.  In a lot of counties in Ohio and other states,  it’s not unusual for there to be an elected   department head and a deputy who does most of  the work but avoids most of the credit or blame,   and I could see this role shifting to  something an AI is filling. Indeed,   I could imagine pathways to futures where the AI  is regarded as a person and has been doing the job   for decades and just inherits the role, or even  gets elected to it. The notion of an AI who ran  

the road department in a small town deciding it  wanted to move up and run for office in a bigger   city is an interesting one to contemplate. One could imagine a dozen or more different   department AI who could be under a human city  council or mayor, who may or may not be entirely   human themselves anymore, lots of cyborg and  transhuman options on the table unrelated to all   this that are likely to play a big role anyway.  Maybe they can engage in a temporary hive mind,   like the Unimind we see with the Eternals  in Marvel comics, when a big decision needs   making. Those might be changing too, where you  annex some ward of neighboring city that had its  

own AI that now moves into the mix, or instead of  a city hive mind, the twenty AI in the region who   all handle power distribution or water or sewers  have to bump heads, or merge them, to plot out   where to build the new water treatment facility  or shift the load while one is being upgraded.  Smart cities, or smartly-run cities at least, will  grow and others will probably not, or even shrink,   and so I think we will see ourselves moving  more this way because, again, fundamentally it   is just too useful to use AI, automation and data  collection to run things and get better results,   and to offer more options to citizens, and by  and large, it’s results and options that people   care about when picking their community,  and when picking who leads or manages it.  One thing seems sure though, whatever the role of  AI and the internet is in cities moving forward,   it is going to be a big one, whether the  city is a big one or a small village.  So today we were talking about Smart Cities and  the idea of making them just generally better   places to live and work in, to have your home or  your business. A lot of that is about being more  

efficient and organized, but just as much is about  making communities people actually love being part   of. It’s not just about finding a place or job you  enjoy, it’s about finding something that makes you   feel positive about doing it. Every job has good  and bad days, but if you love your work and feel   it makes a difference in the world, even hard days  can be energizing, because you know it matters. 

Most people spend about 80,000 hours of their life  in their job, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year,   for 40 years, and would prefer that time helped  the world. 80,000 hours is a lot of time,   so it’s a good idea to do some research on how  best to use it. And that’s where our friends at   80,000 Hours come in, they’re a non-profit  that spent a decade alongside academics at   Oxford University researching which  careers have the most impact, and all   the research is on their website, for free. 80,000 hours website includes a lot of tools  

and resources to help you find your path. Problem  profiles, aiming to answer the question ‘what are   the most pressing problems facing humanity today?’  Career reviews, which discuss which career paths   they recommend if you want to have an impact,  and lots of decision-making tools, such as their   8-week career planning course. They also have a  jobs board, that’s curated & constantly updated   and list of hundreds of active job openings, that  they think might help you have a high impact,   and you can filter those by job location, role  type, job requirements, and what problem area   they work on. Scanning around, there’s  everything up there from Nuclear Physics   Jobs at MIT or AI research in Silicon Valley to  city management or ecology roles, from Intern to   senior directorships. Potential careers for a wide  variety of different skill sets and career stages.  And again, 80,000 hours is free, completely,  if you looking for a career that works on   one of the world’s most pressing problems,  sign up now at 

So that will wrap us up for April, and I’m heading  off for an anniversary trip with my wife this   weekend so apologies in advance if I’m delayed  responding to comments on the episode. We’ll back   next Thursday though for two of our favorite  topics, the Fermi Paradox and Megastructures,   as we contemplate Dysonian SETI, and how we can  search for Dyson Spheres. Then we’ll look at   a lot of the common misconceptions about Space,  Life, the Universe, and Everything, on May 11th.  

After that we’ll have our Scifi Sunday episode,  on May 14th, as we explore the grim realities of   super-urbanized Hive Worlds, then we’ll have its  companion episode, Hungry Aliens, on May 18th.  If you’d like to get alerts when those and other  episodes come out, make sure to hit the like,   subscribe, and notification buttons. You  can also help support the show on Patreon,   and if you want to donate and help in other  ways, you can see those options by visiting   our website, You can  also catch all of SFIA’s episodes early   and ad free on our streaming service,  Nebula, at  As always, thanks for watching,  and have a Great Week!

2023-05-04 08:31

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