City As Superintelligence

Medieval Paris

A movement is afoot to cover some of the largest and most populated cities in the world with a sophisticated array of interconnected sensors, cameras, and recording devices, able to track and respond to every crime or traffic jam ,every crisis or pandemic, as if it were an artificial immune system spread out over hundreds of densely packed kilometers filled with millions of human beings. The movement goes by the name of smart-cities, or sometimes sentient cities, and the fate of the project is intimately tied to the fate of humanity in the 21st century and beyond because the question of how the city is organized will define the world we live in from here forwards -the beginning of era of urban mankind.

Here are just some of many possible examples of smart cities at work, there is the city of Sondgo in South Korea a kind of testing ground for companies such as Cisco which can experiment with integrated technologies, to quote a recent article on the subject, such as:

TelePresence system, an advanced videoconferencing technology that allows residents to access a wide range of services including remote health care, beauty consulting and remote learning, as well as touch screens that enable residents to control their unit’s energy use.

Another example would be IBM’s Smart City Initiative in Rio which has covered that city with a dense network of sensors and cameras that allow centralized monitoring and control of vital city functions, and was somewhat brazenly promoted by that city’s mayor during a TED Talk in 2012. New York has set up a similar system, but it is in the non-Western world where smart cities will live or die because it is there where almost all of the world’s increasingly rapid urbanization is taking place.

Thus India, which has yet to urbanize like its neighbor, and sometimes rival, China, has plans to build up to 100 smart cities with 4.5 billion of the funding towards such projects being provided by perhaps the most urbanized country on the planet- Japan.

China continues to urbanize at a historically unprecedented pace with 250 million of its people- the equivalent of the entire population of the United States a generation ago- to move to its cities in the next 12 years. (I didn’t forget a zero.) There you have a city that few of us have even heard of – Chongqing, – which The Guardian several years back characterized as “the fastest growing urban center on the planet”  with more people in it than the entire countries of Peru and Iraq. No doubt in response to urbanization pressure, and at least back in 2011, Cisco was helping that city with its so-called Peaceful Chongqing Project an attempt to blanket the city in 500,000 video surveillance cameras- a collaboration that was possibly derailed by allegations by Edward Snowden that the NSA had infiltrated or co-opted U.S. companies.

Yet there are other smart-city initiatives that go beyond monitoring technologies. Under this rubric should fall the renewed interest in arcologies- massive buildings that contain within them an entire city, and thus in principle allow a city to be managed in terms of its climate, flows, etc. in the same way the internal environment of a skyscraper can be managed. China had an arcology in the works in Dongtan, which appears to have been scrapped over corruption and cost overrun concerns. Dubai has its green arcology in Masdar City, but it’s in Russia in the grip of a 21st century version of czarism, of all places, where the mother of all arcologies is planned, architect Norman Foster’s Crystal Island which, if actually built, would be the largest structure on the planet.

On the surface, there is actually much to like about smart-cities and their related arcologies. Smart-cities hold out the promise of greater efficiency for an energy starved and warming world. They should allow city management to be more responsive to citizens. All things being equal, smart-cities should be better than “dumb” ones at responding to everything from common fires and traffic accidents to major man- made and natural disasters. If Wendy Orent is correct as she wrote in a recent issue of AEON that we have less to fear from pandemics emerging from the wilderness such as Ebola than those that evolve in areas of extreme human density, smart-city applications should make the response to pandemics both quicker and more effective.

Especially in terms of arcologies, smart-cities represent something relatively new. We’ve had our two major models of the city since the early to mid-20th century, whether the skyscraper cities pioneered by New York and Chicago or the cul-de-sac suburban sprawl of cities dominated by the automobile like Phoenix. Cities going up now in the developing world certainly look more modern than American cities many of whose infrastructure is in a state of decay, but the model is the same, with the marked exception of all those super-trains.

All that said there are problems with smart-cities and the thinker who has written most extensively on the subject Anthony M. Townsend lays them out excellently in his book Smart Cities: Big-Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia. Townsend sees three potential problems with smart-cities- they might prove, in his terms, “buggy. brittle, and bugged”.  

Like all software, the kinds that will be used to run smart-cities might exhibit unwanted surprises. We’ve seen this in some of the most sophisticated software we have running, financial trading algorithms whose “flash crashes” have felled billion dollar companies.

The loss of money, even a great deal of money, is something any reasonably healthy society should be able to absorb, but what if buggy software made essential services go off line over an extended period? Cascades from services now coupled by smart-city software could take out electricity and communication in a heat wave or re-run of last winter’s “polar vortex” and lead to loss of life. Perhaps having functions separated in silos and with a good deal of redundancy, even at the cost of inefficiency, is  “smarter” than having them tightly coupled and under one system. That is, after all, how the human brain works.  

Smart-cities might also be brittle. We might not be able to see that we had built a precarious architecture that could collapse in the face of some stressor or effort to intentionally harm- ahem– Windows. Computers crash and sometimes do so for reasons we are completely at a loss to identify. Or, imagine someone blackmailing a city by threatening to shut it down after having hacked its management system. Old school dumb-cities don’t really crash, even if they can sicken and die, and its hard to say they can be hacked.

Would we be in danger of decreasing a city’s resilience by compressing its complexity into an algorithm? If something like Stephen Wolfram’s principles of computational equivalence  and computational irreducibility is correct then the city is already a kind of computation and no model we can create of it will ever be more effective than this natural computation itself.

Or, to make my meaning clearer, imagine that you had a person that had suffered some horrible accident where to save them you had to replace all of his body’s natural information processing with a computer program. Such a program who have to regulate everything from breathing to metabolism to muscle movement ,along with the immune system, and exchange between neurons, not to mention a dozen other things. My guess is that you’d have to go out many generations of such programs before they are anywhere near workable. That the first generations would miss important elements, be based on wrong assumptions on how things worked, and would be loaded with perhaps catastrophic design errors that you couldn’t identify until the program was fully run in multiple iterations.

We are blissfully unaware that we are the product of billions of years of “engineering” where “design” failures were weeded out by evolution. Cities have only a few thousand years of a similar type of evolution behind them, but trying to control a great number of their functions via algorithms run by “command centers” might pose similar risks to my body example.  Reducing city functions to something we can compute in silicon might oversimplify the city in such a way as to reduce its resilience to stressors cities have naturally evolved to absorb. That is, there is, in all use of “Big-Data”, a temptation to interpret reality only in light of the model that scaffolds this data or reframe problems in ways that can mathematically be modeled. We set ourselves up for crises when we confuse the map with the territory or as Jaron Lanier said:

 What makes something real is that it is Impossible to represent it to completion.

Lastly, and as my initial examples of smart-cities should have indicated, smart-cities are by design bugged. They are bugged so as to surveil their citizens in an effort to prevent crime or terrorism or even just respond to accidents or disasters. Yet the promise of safety comes at the cost of one of the virtues of city living – the freedom granted from anonymity. But even if we care nothing for such things I’ve got news- trading privacy for security doesn’t even work.

Chongqing may spend tens of millions of dollars installing CCTV cameras, but would be hooligans or criminals or just people who don’t like being watched such as those in London, have a twenty dollar answer to all these gizmos- it’s called a hoodie. Likewise, a simple pattern of dollar store facepaint, strategically applied, can short-circuit the most sophisticated facial recognition software. I will never cease to be amazed at human ingenuity.    

We need to acknowledge that it is largely companies or individuals with extremely deep pockets and even deeper political connections that are promoting this model of the city. Townsend estimates it is potentially a 100 billion dollar business. We need to exercise our historical memory and recall how it was automobile companies that lobbied for and ended up creating our world of sprawl. Before investing millions or even billions cities need to have an idea of what kind of future they want to have and not be swayed by the latest technological trends.

This is especially the case when it comes to cities in the developing world where the conditions often resemble something more out of Dicken’s 19th century than even the 20th. When I enthusiastically asked a Chinese student about the arcology at Dongtan he responded with something like “Fools! Who would want to live in such a thing! It’s a waste of money. We need clean air and water, not such craziness!” And he’s no doubt largely right. And perhaps we might be happy that the project ultimately unraveled and say with Thoreau:

As for your high towers and monuments, there was a crazy fellow once in this town who undertook to dig through to China, and he got so far that, as he said, he heard the Chinese pots and kettles rattle; but I think that I shall not go out of my way to admire the hole which he made. Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East — to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them — who were above such trifling.

The age of connectivity, if it’s done thoughtfully, could bring us cities that are cleaner, greener, more able to deal with the shocks of disaster or respond to the spread of disease. Truly smart-cities should support a more active citizenry, a less tone-deaf bureaucracy, a more socially and culturally rich, entertaining and more civil life- the very reasons human beings have chosen to live in cities in the first place .

If the age of connectivity is done wrong cities will have poured scarce resources down a hole of corruption as deep as the one dug by Thoreau’s townsman, will have turned vibrant cultural and historical environments into corporate “flat-pack” versions of tomorrowland, and most frighteningly of all turned the potential democratic agora of the city into a massive panopticon of Orwellian monitoring and control. Cities, in the Wolfram not Bostrom sense, are already a sort of super-intelligence or better, hive mind of its interconnected yet free individuals more vibrant and important than any human built structure imaginable.  Will we let them stay that way?


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