Neural networks, deep learning, bioinformatics, computer vision and perception, machine learning, advanced robotics, and cognitive systems. There is no shortage of emerging technologies when it comes to Artificial Intelligence, or AI—code that can literally learn independently from humans. For decades now, we have been drawn to all things AI, albeit much of which has been exaggerated to Hollywood proportions (think classic blockbusters like “Terminator”). Once again in recent years the topic has reignited our collective imagination—owing mainly to huge leaps forward in computing capacity, masses of cheap so-called big data, and recent progress in consumer technology.
Fresh off the heels of my trip to Shanghai, all things AI are top of mind. Last week, I was hosted by the organizers of China’s 2018 International Artificial Intelligence Conference last week, from September 17 to 19, where I was invited to speak at an international summit on the relationship between AI and smart cities. The conference was an impressive succession of forums, summits, exhibitions, and industry tours, bringing together top industry executives, elected officials, and technologists from around the world. It featured speakers from many of the world’s leading technology firms, including top industry executives from Chinese giants, such as, the “BAT”— Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent — China’s “Google”, “Amazon” and “Facebook.”
Shanghai showcased its city’s energetic aspirations to be among the world leaders for its AI industries, projected to be worth over 100 billion yuan ($15.1 billion USD) in the next two to three years. The “global race for AI,” as it was somewhat ominously translated into English, dominated the dialogue. The conference explored the transformative effects that will dawn every industry and aspect of society in this new so-called era of AI. The great promise of AI, according to its many disciples, is that it will usher in the Era of Intelligence, an evolutionary capstone culminating our progress beginning with the Stone Age.
But let’s move beyond the hype for a moment and think about what AI means to us all in the not so distant future. Will computers replace humans? At its best, AI will truly augment but not supplant human creativity and ingenuity. As one speaker put it, “computers may have intelligence but, unlike humans, they don’t have heart.” AI, as well as robotics, drones, and autonomous vehicles, will have a dramatic effect on the work that is required by people. It will impact the type of work we do, and how we do it.
One speaker even surmised that AI would create so much new prosperity for everyone that there would be no more need for wars. Forget for a moment that the same was said of nuclear power—big data and cheap computing are creating the ripe conditions for meteoric advances in AI and, in the process, creating unimaginable new wealth at lightening speed. All this taken together is now being referred to a “fourth industrial revolution.” And AI won’t just disrupt blue collar trades like previous Industrial Revolutions. Industries that may be among the most disrupted are now medicine and law.
Make no mistake, AI is already here. Applications are now commonplace in healthcare (diagnosing disease and improving public health outcomes), transportation (traffic control and simulation), public safety (facial/voice recognition), manufacturing (process/inventory control), as well as ubiquitous in retail, services, and marketing (think chatbots or Amazon’s “flywheel”). Most of these technologies can increase standards of living across the planet, helping with literacy, reducing mortality, fighting disease, strengthening democracy—you name it.
Shanghai dazzled conference attendees with its many consumer technologies, some ready for market and some more like betamode—tech you could touch and feel: like taking a spin in a self-driving car or (for the thick-skinned or extremely confident) testing facial recognition software that guesses your age and scores your beauty.
(I like to think that this particular technology is not ready for “prime time,” as the program added no less than 34 years to my age and I won’t dare comment on my beauty ranking. Much more unsettling, however, the beauty scoring software did not even recognize the face of an African-European at the event—once again showing that AI can be responsible for reinforcing societal biases and racism.)
China is a different world. Keeping all debate aside for a moment about privacy protection, public safety and outright surveillance, one thing is certain, China—with its 800 million Internet users—is leading the pack in terms of its access to reams of cheap data and not shying away from conversations about AI and ethics. In January 2018, a large group of Chinese organizations published a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence Standardization, noting the ethical issues in AI:
“We should also be wary of AI systems making ethically biased decisions. For example, if universities use machine learning algorithms to assess admissions, and the historical admissions data used for training (intentionally or not) reflect some bias from previous admission procedures (such as gender discrimination), then machine learning may exacerbate these biases during repeated calculations, creating a vicious cycle. If not corrected, biases will persist in society in this way.”
To its credit, conference speakers raised some serious questions that the whole world should be preparing for—such as workforce dislocation and the role that AI may have in ushering in a new global order. I couldn’t help but notice how differently AI is discussed in Canada and North America, where conversations often sway to direct consumer benefits.
Now, back to the purpose for my trip—smart cities. AI is at the center of new thinking on smart cities, or smart communities, which is all about how places around the world are using AI and other digital and connected technologies to make their communities safer, more sustainable, and more efficient. For example, what if your house, by tracking your movement intuitively, knew if you had fallen in your home and automatically called 911 and unlocked the house when emergency responders arrived?
As the CEO of the South Island Prosperity Project, Greater Victoria’s economic development partnership, our approach to smart cities is what brought me to the conference as a guest speaker to talk about AI and smart cities in the first place.
As one of the top 20 finalists in Canada’s first national Smart City Challenge, we put citizen-centered design and planning at the heart of all our work to make Greater Victoria’s transportation and mobility network more sustainable, affordable, and convenient by using these emerging technologies, like single payment and trip planning platforms for different modes of transportation.
In technology terms, citizen-centered design is about user-experience, but in societal terms, it’s about creating more participatory, accommodating, and inclusive cities—a subject that may rightfully need its own blog.
Is ‘Smart Cities’ economic development?
Municipal governments around the world in the coming years are about to be hit with a tidal wave of tough decisions around policy and regulation, including the ethics and risk assessment of new technologies. Think unemployment, jobs, training, income inequality, and privacy, to name a few. (see top 10 big issues heading toward cities according to Forbes here: How Cities Are Getting Smart Using Artificial Intelligence.) These disruptions may first impact businesses, but soon we will see workforce changes. We have a tremendous opportunity before us now to prepare for the future and ensure as many of us as possible get to partake in its many ‘upsides’.
Ignoring AI is obviously not an option. That is like asking time to stand still. What we need now is more public dialogue around the issues that will most impact citizens. We must think about how we build inclusive, sustainable economies that don’t just benefit the few.
Affordability in Greater Victoria is already an issue, where the lifestyle and natural beauty draws so many of us in later stages of life. The downside to this affluence is that prices go up, and it becomes more difficult for young people to find economic opportunities. We hear of this all the time in the trades, but it’s also a problem for knowledge-workers just starting out. Eventually these impending labour market shortages will constrict economic growth, a situation that is good for nobody.
Still think you aren’t going to be affected? Well, if you think the 99% movement was angry before, just wait another 10 years. There will be social and political upheavals if we can’t integrate newcomers, young people, and other marginalized people into the economy. If we allow history to be our teacher, we know that we can’t assume this only matters south of the border, or that issues south of the border don’t make their way to Canada.
On the flip side, our responsibility to our citizens is also our great opportunity. Technology has the power to create incredible social progress—just think of better public transportation, seniors aging longer at home, higher household incomes, more engaged citizenship, improved health and education outcomes, as well as less congestion, waste and pollution. The very best of all AI’s promises, at least to me, is that we can build participatory cities that use technology not just to create wealth for the few, but to create livable communities that will accommodate all of us for generations to come.