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Technology Looking Forward: Smart Phones, Smart Cars, Smart…Cities?!

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It has been seen in countless science fiction: a city where the LCD advertisements target themselves to your interests, where everything is wireless and automated, and knows your name, birthday, and pet’s favorite dog food.  Computers run the show and our existences have become, if not entirely digital, then at least inseparably so.  Thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new Smart Cities Lab, this may not be a far off reality for the world.

What makes a city a smart city?

As defined by them, a “smart city” is dependent upon six areas of development:

  • smart economy
  • smart environment
  • smart governance
  • smart lifestyle
  • smart transportation
  • smart community

The idea is to create a base grid that would operate via a set of programming and hardware that would remind you eerily of being physically inside an operating system.  This “SmartCityOS”, we might call it, would plug into that city’s grid, affecting each area of daily city living in order to automate processes and make more streamlined the experience of 21st century living.  This grid would control large-scale items such as traffic flow, and more specific processes such as air conditioning and heating.

How far into the future are we talking here?

Smart city technology is already being implemented in various areas across the globe. The highest concentration of work is currently in Asia, with a heavy focus on Hong Kong and Tokyo.  There’s also, naturally, lots of work being done in MIT’s home turf of Massachusetts.  We have already taken the first steps towards accomplishing this vision by beginning to embed intelligence into our day to day devices.

You go to a website and the ads that support that website seem to be tailored expressly for you.  They are.  Through your browsing habits and purchasing habits, the technology on these websites is able to bring you advertisements that are more statistically likely to encourage you to click on them, look at the advertiser’s web page and, if the final goal is successful, get you to purchase a product or service from them.

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Smart city technology has also been starting to pop up in the area of the cars we drive.  A small chip embedded in the key of our cars stores all of our preferences, so that when you put the key into the ignition, the car automatically adjusts so that the seat is exactly how you prefer it, the heat or air conditioning is correct and all the mirrors are adjusted to just your height and position.  There’s no word yet on whether or not it will make your morning coffee for you exactly how you like it, but it’s a good bet that someone is working on it somewhere.  In any event, the potential for this technology might be highlighted by how much we already take for granted examples like these.

Looking into the future, then, imagine, entering a department store and the small chip in your store card that was read by the RFID scanner when you entered the door allows a recorded but realistic voice to greet you, “Good morning Miss Smith!”  If you more cringe when you hear that than leap for joy, it’s OK.  We’ll get to that below.

Why is this direction the one researchers are choosing?

A big reason for this is ecological concerns.  While so much in this field remains hotly debated, there are few at this point who don’t agree that there are at least some resources that we are going to start running out of soon.  Although significant effort is being put into moving us over to renewable energies, smart city technology lets us buy some more time by making more intelligent, efficient use of our current energy consumption.  The more lifestyle functions that we can automate, the less raw material and manpower we wind up using.

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At the same time, let’s be honest and point out that a lot of it is also just good business sense, for all of the same reasons as listed above.  While these are options being pursued by cities and other governmental structures, these bodies routinely contract out their services to private companies.  These companies will get their bids more or less based on the types of efficiencies they can offer.  Plus, remember that there are large-scale private institutions, such as malls and skyscrapers, which are so massive in their scope that they become miniature cities in themselves.  They have the same incentive to penny-pinch, and the tiny benefits from this technology can add up quickly.

The uncertainty principle

This is, naturally, something of a seismic societal shift.  With it come the equally seismic societal problems.

Focusing first on logistics, the biggest of these is the fact that while this promises to save money, this is, to varying degrees, theoretical.  The upgrade costs are not.  There are going to be a lot of people and places that are going to need to see solid evidence that this is worth the investment before jumping in.  This wouldn’t be the first technology that promised to change the world.  If it failed, it wouldn’t be the first one of those to do that, either.

Related to that, then, is the fact that the upper limits of this technology’s usefulness are unknown.  We are familiar with seeing ads on web pages that attempt to market to us.  We are also familiar with how laughably bad these can be.  All forms of artificial intelligence have always had to wrestle against the fact that reality doesn’t always lend itself well to being boxed into a set of numbers.  Your car’s settings may know what radio stations you prefer, but it’s not going to necessarily be able to read your mind and know that just today you’re really sick of Pearl Jam.  It’s unclear just how effective we can hope for this technology to get.

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Then there is always the persistent problem of privacy and security.  More data and more data systems means more opportunities for infiltration, with all of the crimes that come along with it.  While this was a problem before, exactly how secure would you feel about the possibility of a city’s electrical grid being in the hands of a fired city employee with a strong set of hacking skills and a grudge to bear?  A less extreme example is the sharing of personal information to companies trying to market you to death.  By the time that the 50th billboard you pass blasts your name on it, you just might prefer that someone shut off all the lights.

Future, ho!

All of these problems notwithstanding, it is beginning to look like the smart city might be the way of the future.  There may simply be too much momentum to stop this technology from finding its way into all aspects of our daily lives.

Some will react to this with the excitement that comes from years of anticipating it.  Others will start to look for tents and teach themselves how to make fire with sticks.  If there’s one bit of advice we can issue to all parties, it’s this: wait and see.  This future may be close by, but it is still not yet written.



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