An Essay On Applied Artificial Intelligence and Sustainable Cities

500 days of Artificial Intelligence #2

I am challenging myself to write and think about the topic of artificial intelligence for the next 500 days with the #500daysofAI.

This is inspired by the film 500 Days of Summer where the main character tries to figure out where a love affair went sour, and in doing so, rediscovers his true passions in life.

As mentioned in my previous post defining artificial intelligence is notoriously difficult. So when we mix this ambiguous concept with two perhaps equally confusing terms we could expect to be left with nothing but further confusion. Still this combination is perceived to be for some an exciting opportunity and for others a dystopian vision of the future. Still we must attempt and in a way begin to put these four words in combination to trial.

Essay: late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’. “to put to proof, test the mettle of,” late 15c., from Middle French essaier, from essai “trial, attempt” (see essay (n.)). This sense has mostly gone with the divergent spelling assay. Meaning “to attempt” is from 1640s.

Since I started to explore the definition of artificial intelligence in my last postlet me start with some thought on sustainability and on cities.

There will be some reflections on sustainability and cities with a few case examples at the end. If those examples are what you are interested in feel free to scroll further down.

Human history is characterised by the increased success of some societies followed by crises that were either resolved, producing sustainability, or not, leading to decline. We will start our short explanation in our current geological age, the Anthropocene, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

As such we no longer talk of the ability to sustain separate communities — rather the focus lies on our planet earth and the survival of humanity within our ecosystem here.

The 1971 findings of the book Limits To Growth was presented for the first time at gatherings in Moscow and Rio De Janeiro. It proposed that the planet earth is a finite system, which means it has limited or finite resources. The report used a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. It concluded that with certain growth patterns the system may collapse and proposed we should take immediate steps to avoid this.

At the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, there was an expressed need to “maintain the earth as a place suitable for human life not only now but for future generations” the focus was on human activities that contribute to environmental degradation and resource depletion.

When the International Union for Conservation of Nature published the World Conservation Strategy in 1980, it applied the concept of sustainability to development: “For development to be sustainable, it must take account of social and ecological factors, as well as economic ones; of the living and nonliving resource base; and of the long term as well as short term advantages and disadvantages of alternative actions.”

1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, now known as the Brundtland commission, with their report Our Common Future popularised the use of “Sustainable Development”.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Our Common Future

This report and the work of the World Commission on Environment and Development laid the groundwork for the convening of the 1992 Earth Summit and the adoption of Agenda 21 that presented the aim of achieving global sustainable development in the 21st century. At the Millenium Summit in the year 2000 all 191 member states of the United Nations agreed to eight goals with specific targets. In 2015 Agenda 2030 also known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was decided upon at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015. It took the goals from Agenda 21 re-asserted them and added, a total of 17 goals agreed upon with 169 targets each with one to three indicators.

The online publication SDG Tracker was released in 2018 based on Our World in Data database to help understand progress towards the 17 goals. The Global SDG Index and Dashboards Report is a yearly publication that features trend analysis to show how countries perform on key SDG metrics as well as analysis on government efforts. Reports and analysis from 2018–2019 from these sources show that the world is far from achieving the sustainable development goals. This is echoed by the latest report by IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggesting that unprecedented change is needed.

There needs to be a drastic reduction in emissionsyet it has not been the case and as such, in addition to not reaching other SDGs, it can be argued we are currently in a climate crisis. In one way we inevitably in any city we enter the field of morality of what is wrong or right. In other words what is sustainable or unsustainable.

“Future cities will be like a human brain where layers of artificial intelligence and Internet of Things will be incorporated into our infrastructures.”
-Innovate UK

Written thoughts on how the ideal city should look like can be traced all the way back to Plato and his thoughts in The Republic. So imagining the perfect city is not a new activity. In Socrates discussions looking first at the polis (city in Greek) to see how it shapes the just person, because he is critical of whether a person can be just in an unjust city.

This trend of looking at society for individual morality can later be traced to the bigger perspective on society popularised in social science by Emilé Durkheim by looking at larger movements. However we could also go further back to mention social contracts – contractarianism with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.

“Contractarianism” names both a political theory of the legitimacy of political authority and a moral theory about the origin or legitimate content of moral norms. The political theory of authority claims that legitimate authority of government must derive from the consent of the governed, where the form and content of this consent derives from the idea of contract or mutual agreement.

We could likely continue namedropping philosophers in this manner, I just took an ethics class, so perhaps I can be excused.

Consent in a city or in society after the proliferation of terms and conditions would provide for another interesting discussion. Us humans do often consent to several local terms and conditions when we are born and operate in society, and by accessing transnational platforms in cities so do we consent to international legislation. This differentiation is interesting.

Straight away when I start talking about cities I can in some sense loose my way on this track to talking of larger collections of people, of society in singular or plural. The individual as opposed to the system.

Urbanisation is a field of study in itself and definitions of what is ‘urban’ varies within different countries. This can also be an urban area or an urban culture etc. There are connotations to high population densities and buildings. A metropolitan area contains satellite cities and rural areas.

So why bring in urbanity and morality at this stage? You may have realised sustainability and applied AI rapidly spirals into a question of the dichotomy right or wrong and ethics (AKA moral philosophy) in cities. As the mantra in conferences about cities goes: more than half of our global population currently live in cities. As such the distribution of funds can be slanted in this direction towards cities rather than rural areas.

Social Geography: How cities are constituted and the expressed through social processes can be approached in a wide variety of ways. One of these ways is social geography that perhaps not surprisingly combines traditions within sociology and geography.

The narrative often ties into a smart city framework and ecology. Arguments for increased mobility, health, safety etc. “I think as we look at this framework of smart cities we are beginning to see an evolution where we are matching technology with economic development and human care.”
-Smart Cities and AI discussion 11th of February at Brookings Institute

This moves us into the idea of evolution which has been present before. This cultural or social evolutionism that before was bound to race suddenly presents itself in visions or comparisons of modernity. The idea of developed or less developed still present.

It may in this context be relevant to property developers or real estate developers. The activity that: “a business process, encompassing activities that range from the renovation and re-lease of existing buildings to the purchase of raw land and the sale of developed land or parcels to others.” In property or there is a general notion of areas that are more or less developed.

Policy makers are judged on infrastructure, and shaping infrastructure is very much a social process involving most of the aforementioned people in addition to planners; architects; engineers; and a series of other professions related to construction. Although we like to think so humans are not necessarily rational beings at least if we talk of economic rationality. So large, medium or small infrastructural decisions can also base itself on the poetics of infrastructure. Building a bigger airport, statue, library etc. is a statement. A statement that supposedly is as well planned as it can be.

Value on a piece of paper is highly volatile in its perceived value both due to its ties to this complex network, yet perhaps paradoxically it is what provides safety to this asset, a useful or valuable thing to a person. It is more certain than other parts of society may be: a safe investment. It is there, it has a stated value and you own it. The land may be owned by a few: as an example half of England is owned by 1% of its population.

On that note let us think of the field of AI with its range of products as a new infrastructural investment. It is said that 40% of the companies that claim to move into this direction has not done so yet, however brands themselves with AI. It is not strange because they may attract up to 15–50% more funding.

Mobility has been a focus. Let us think about autonomous driving vehicles for a second. Autonomous technology is a whole other part of itself, but the product will likely include the field of AI.

Yes, there may be incremental increase to fuel efficiency, however what would it mean to have several million people on the road with an advanced graphics processing unit running and analysing the input it receives? Possibly increased energy consumption. I am not an expert on this, however vast amounts of minerals would needed to be extracted for self-driving cars for personal use to be taken into consideration.

We do have to find ways for our transportation to become more sustainable, and autonomous driving may be part of that mix, however I would question the narrative of universal adoption by a more modern society. There are various cases that can be interest to consider best and worst case scenarios. What does society have to gain: how much energy is used; what resources will be required over time; does it have any inherent bias based on the data the product is operating from; does it decrease or increase inequality; and many other concerns that could be tackled in separate articles.

Designing buildings or planning areas in a city with applied AI. Spacemaker AI is a company in Oslo that has grown the last year from a tenfold of employees to recently passing hundred employees. They: “Design better cities with AI”

“Spacemaker has developed a game-changing AI technology that helps users discover smarter ways to maximize the potential of a building site. Our product lets the user generate and explore a multitude of site proposals, sort out the best ones, and provides detailed analyses for each of them. It enables a fantastic level of insight and a collaborative workflow among architects, engineers, real estate developers, and municipalities.” — Spacemaker AI website

Marketing properties can also be done assisted with applied AI and marketing automations. Data-driven recommendations that are connected and may over time learn. An example of this is Marketer Technologies.

Each campaign is automatically optimized by testing target groups, ad content, formats and channels against each other. The algorithm automatically promotes the combinations that give the best results, minimizing cost and maximizing effect.

Sewage systems in cities can become more efficient with the use of artificial intelligence to predict how much chemicals that should be used to clean up after your dirty business. This has been implemented in Trondheim with SINTEF.

The project is only in an early phase, but the first results are promising. Frank Batey tells that AI can discover patterns from big amounts of data collected over several years. These patterns can be harder to see for humans.

So this is a few examples that I could dive further into another day.

Hope you enjoyed day two!

PS: This was a longer post than I expected. I may try to ramble less and perhaps do 500 days of AI with 500 words per day.

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.

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