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From Smart to Intelligent Cities

Smart cities will become smarter leveraging on technology but it is unlikely they will become intelligent, unless they learn to leverage on citizens. Image Credit: GovComm

Smart is being able to make the most out of a situation, leveraging on what can be available. Intelligent means the capability to look ahead and make “conscious” decisions now, taking into account their impact on a longer term. Most animals are very smart, only a few, including (sometimes) humans are intelligent, that is have the capability to evaluate long term results before taking a decision.

We are seeing “artificial intelligence” popping up everywhere and we are also starting to discuss about emerging intelligence resulting from the behaviour of a multitude of components, each one basically unaware of the whole, and yet participating in the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Can a city become intelligent in this sense? Can the multitude of its components give rise to an emergent intelligence?

I will be discussing these issues with Derrick de Kerckhove in a webinar aired on December 12th serving as a prologue to the discussions that will take place at the WFIoT in February 2018 in Singapore.

I am interested in how technology can help us, and it is going to help us in the years to come. Derrick, on the other hand, is interested in how technology is “changing” us and will be “changing” us in the years to come. Two interesting viewpoints (may be his is much more interesting than mine…) that connect to the question I’m discussing here. Be sure to join us by registering for the December 12th free webinar.

Although we do not know how to exactly pinpoint the clockwork of intelligence we are quite certain that you need a complex systems to generate an emergent intelligent behaviour (and consciousness). We do not know what is the thresholds of complexity, the minimum required complexity (actually, we are still debating on how to measure “complexity”).

Our brain consists of (close to) hundred billion neurones and 100 trillion synapses. Somebody said that our brain is too complex for us to understand it but on the other hand if we had a brain that we could understand that brain would be too simple to be able to understand it (this reminds me of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems).

Be it as it may, could a city reach a complexity sufficient to create an emerging intelligence?

A city with 100,000 inhabitants may have some hundred millions components (that means 1,000 “parts” for each of its inhabitants, be it cars, buses, buildings, lamp posts, sensors of any kinds – over ten for each smartphone, over 100 in a car -200 expected in 2020 cars). However, it is not the number per sé that creates a complex system, this is the result of the interactions among the various components. With the embedding of sensors in any objects, the blanketing of the city with a pervasive, low latency, low power budget network as the one promised by 5G we can expect a huge set of interactions.

The problem is that a city made by hundreds of millions of parts that are connected may still not qualify as a complex system. It may be a very very “complicated” system but a complicated system that can be decomposed into many parts (as an example the transport infrastructure, the waste management infrastructure, the health care infrastructure….) thus reducing its perceived complication, and decreasing its chances to create an emerging intelligence.

Our brains, most brains, are complex, you cannot simplify them without losing their essence.

Our cities are an assembly of different systems, and therefore can also be decomposed into their individual systems. As interconnections grow, we might reach a situation where interdependencies will be established among the different systems, reaching a point where these interdependencies will be essential and it will no longer be possible to separate a city in its components.

This may go against a good engineering practice, keep it simple and avoid interference, but at the same time interdependencies may increase the overall value (emergent value), may decrease the required investments (do not reinvent the wheel, piggy back on what exists) and eventually may become unavoidable…

More on my next post.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.