Artificial Intelligence is currently being touted as solution to most problems. Most if not all energy is put into conjuring up new and even more exotic machine learning models and ways of optimizing these. However, the primary boundary for AI is currently not technical as it used to be. It is ecological. Here I am not thinking about the developer ecosystem, but the ecosystem of humans that have to live with the consequences of AI and interact with machines and systems driven by it. While AI lends itself beautifully to the concept of smart cities this is also one of the avenues where this will most clearly play out because the humans that stand to benefit and potentially suffer from the consequences of AI are also voters. Voters vote for politicians and politicians decide to fund AI for smart cities.
How Smart is AI In A Smart City Context?
At a recent conference I had an interesting discussion where we were talking about what AI could be used for. Someone suggested that Machine Learning and AI could be used for smart cities. Working for a city and having worked with AI for a number of years, my question was “for what?” One suggestion was regulating traffic.
So, let us think through this. In New York City we have on occasion a lot of traffic. Let us say that we are able to construct a machine learning system that could indeed optimize traffic flow through the city. This will not be simple or easy, but not outside the realm of the possible. Let us say that all intersections are connected to this central AI algorithm that provides the city as a whole with optimal traffic conditions. The algorithm works on sensor input that counts the number of cars at different intersections based on existing cameras. Probably this will not mean that traffic always flows perfectly but certainly on average does better.
Now imagine during one of these congestions a fire erupts in downtown Manhattan and fire trucks are delayed in traffic due to congestion. 50 people die. The media then finds out that the traffic lights are controlled by an artificial intelligence algorithm. They ask the commissioner of transportation why 50 people had to die because of the algorithm. This is not a completely fair question but media have been known to ask such questions. He tries to explain that the algorithm optimizes the overall flow of traffic. The media are skeptical and ask him to explain how it works. This is where it gets complicated. Since this in part is a deep learning algorithm no one can really tell how it works or why there was congestion delaying the fire trucks at that particular time. The outrage is palpable and headlines read “City has surrendered to deadly AI” and “Incomprehensible algorithm leads to incomprehensible fatalities”
Contrast this to a simple algorithm that is based on clear and simple rules that are not as effective overall but work along the lines of 30 seconds one way 30 seconds another way. Who would blame the commissioner of transportation for congestion in that case?
Politics And Chaos
Media aside there could be other limiting factors. Let us stay with our idea of an AI system controlling the traffic lights in New York City. Let us further assume that the AI system gets a continuous input about traffic flow in the city. Based on this feed it can adapt the signals to optimize the flow. This is great but due to the fact that we have now coupled the system with thousands of feedback loops it enters into the realm of complex or chaotic systems and will start to exhibit properties that are associated with that kind of systems. Typical examples of such properties are: erratic behavior, path dependency, and limited possibility for prediction.
Massively scalable AI cannot counteract these effects easily and even if we could, the true system dynamics would not be known until the system goes live. We would not know how many cars would be running red lights or speed up/slow down compared to today. Possibly the system could be trimmed and be made to behave, but then we basic politics. Which responsible leader would want to experiment with a city of more than 10 million peoples daily lives. Who would want to face these people and explain to them that the reason they are late for work or for their son’s basket ball game is trimming an AI algorithm?
The Limits Of AI
So, the limits to AI may not be primarily of a technical nature. They may have just as much to do with how the world behaves and what other non-data-scientist-humans will accept. Even if it is better to loose 50 people in a fire in Manhattan once every 10th year and reducing the number of traffic deaths by 100 every year, the stories written are about the one tragic event not about the general trend. Voters remember the big media stories and will never notice a smaller trend. Consequently, regardless of the technical utility and precision of AI, there will be cases where the human factor will constrain the solutions more than any code or infrastructure.
Based on this thought experiment I think the most important limits to adoption of AI solutions at city scale are the following
- Unclear benefits – what are the benefits of leveraging AI for smart cities? We can surely think up a few use-cases but it is harder than you think. Traffic was one but even here the benefits can be elusive.
- Algorithmic transparency – if we are ready to let our lives be dominated by AI in any important area citizens who vote will want to understand precisely how the algorithms work. Many classes of AI algorithms are incomprehensible in their nature and constantly changing. How can we prove that no one tampered with them in order to gain an unfair advantage? Real people who are late for work or are denied bail will want to know that and some times Department Of Investigation will want to know as well.
- Accountability – whatever an algorithm is doing, people will want to hold a person accountable for it if something goes wrong. Who is accountable for malfunctioning AI? Or even well functioning AI with unwanted side effects? The buck stops with the responsible on the top, the elected or appointed official.
- Unacceptable implementation costs – real world AI in a city context can rarely be adequately tested in advance as we are used to for enterprise applications. Implementing and trimming a real world system may have too many adversarial effects before it starts to be beneficial. No matter how much we prepare we can never know exactly how the human part of the system will behave at scale until we release it in the wild.
Artificial Intelligence is a great technological opportunity for cities but we have to develop the human side of AI in order to arrive something that is truly beneficial at scale.