Will Smart Cities Make Us Dumb?

With all of our tasks done for us whilst we are always monitored, will we lose common sense?


JG Ballard once said, ‘I could sum up the future in one word, and that word is 'boring.' The future is going to be boring.’ I would go one further, and say the future is going to be stupid too.

Technology has undeniably made our lives easier, and for many in poorer communities it has enabled lives to continue, period. But has it made them more interesting? And as progress marches inexorably on, what does this really mean for human beings and our ability to innovate?

The global urban population has risen to 54% of the total population and is set to rise to over 66% by 2050. As data points are added across cities, and Internet of Things technology is incorporated into planning systems, we are seeing the rise of so-called smart cities. Smart cities are far better equipped to deal with the massive increase in migration set to take place in coming years. Smart cities use intelligent transport systems, and they are administered by integrated urban command centers, which leverage big data gathered from citizens to manage every aspect of urban life and ensure it runs smoothly.

Examples of this are already being seen across the world, with many major cities making their data open to the public to facilitate better innovation and understanding about where technologies can be introduced to improve performance. For example, Chicago has used data analytics to pinpoint where to place bait for rats by listing which dumpsters are most likely to be overflowing. According to Schenk, this has seen the city become 20% more efficient in controlling rats. Many newer cities, particularly in China, are being built from the ground up as smart cities, which mean they are built automation ready. Automation could run public utilities and transportation systems with amazing efficiency, that is undeniable. But while such cities may seem like a utopia, there are real concerns.

The cities of the future could bring about something far more dangerous than delayed rat catchers and inefficient lighting systems - it could bring about an epidemic of boredom and introduce in the population a feeling that they are being controlled. As we enter an automated future, in which city functions glide seamlessly into one another and we slip effortlessly through our daily lives, we are almost pushed from place to place, the soul of the city is abandoned. Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities, ‘Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.’ Could someone write this about a city where predictive algorithms have taken control of the sewer system?

In their pursuit of smart cities, planners risk blindly pursuing convenience and efficiency at the expense of decades of research by architects, geographers, urban planners, designers and sociologists. There is every chance that this could lead to a dystopian future where humans lose agency. Philipp Schuster, MD of Loxone UK, notes that ‘If citizens are forced into a certain way of adopting it could lead to 'Orwellian Panopticonism' attitudes, in which people can feel controlled and constantly watched.’ And it’s not just in cities that people appear to be dropping the ball when it comes to failing to consider the consequences of blindly implementing data - the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) needs to be carefully monitored if it is work.

AI has been in the news a lot of late, with Microsot’s chatbot ‘Tay’ going off the reservation and contorting into a racist, holocaust-denying, monster before being eventually pulled. If engineers are going to allow AI to learn qualitatively from humans, it will end up representative of the lowest common denominator. There is a great diversity in people’s refined and moral and intelligent interests, but people’s vulgar and prurient and stupid interests tend to be the same. Likewise, the masses also tend to share far more fears than they do hopes and aspirations. Therefore, when AI looks to learn from the general population by basing itself on the personality of the average person, it will incorporate these vulgar interests and base fears. The real danger of AI is not that in trying to replicate ourselves in machines we will create a race of superbeings that wipe us out, it’s that we will create a race of machines than spend its entire time doing the inane things we do ourselves on a daily basis.

In such a world, marginal interests are pushed even further to the fringe. The impact on human consciousness of a society that so constantly provides for the normal and expected - the expected action, the normal thought, the predictable movement - should not be underestimated. The outsider is shunned already, and a world where cities and AI account only for the normal will grind even more from them. The would-be maverick is crushed completely, pushed around the city in which they live without having to ever think.

It may seem unlikely, but is the idea that we become so reliant on automation that we lose common sense? After all, would the children of today know how to get somewhere if they didn’t have their phones telling them?

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