Smart city expert weighs in on artificial intelligence and oncoming tech disruption

Renato de Castro urges us to ponder the possibility of AI inducing a fourth industrial revolution

Forecasting the future is no longer the preserve of sci-fi novelists, as Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things play an ever-greater role in our homes, offices and cities, increasing the potential for societal disruption, according to smart city expert Renato de Castro.

Though de Castro is quick to point out that the concept of ‘smart cities’ is a misnomer: “We are not [creating] ‘smart cities’ – cities are not becoming smarter! It is society that is becoming smarter, with millennials and a more connected lifestyle. You are talking about citizenship, people want to co-create with the whole process [and] the challenge is bringing them inside the process as a massive stakeholder. …Dubai wants to be the happiest city in the world, I think this is the right path to go. Smart cities and whatever technology you use is supposed to make our lives better. And the greatest result that we can see is if people are happier.”

The development of smart cities, in his view, is best achieved as a partnership between a government and the private sector, with an equal stake given to the people (his PPPP, or public, private, people partnerships concept). The residents of the city have to be involved in a project of making a city smarter, de Castro believes, as technology in urban planning shouldn’t develop at the expense of that city’s identity or culture, which is what connects people to their home.

However, the effects of these technological advances are not all positive and, at this year’s conference, de Castro will be presenting four predictions for the future that, in his view, have to be taken into consideration when developing smart cities and modern societies.
“The first one is social exclusion versus digital inclusion.” He goes on: “We see that the gap in society is getting bigger, but with all technologies that we are applying we have some examples where people are totally socially excluded, but are still being digitally included.”
“The second scenario is regarding artificial intelligence. We are going deeper and deeper into artificial intelligence…and the question is will these machines in the future have rights? Is that even a question that people are ready to address?”

The subject of AI also raises ethical questions that de Castro believes have to form part of the dialogue. “When we talk about artificial intelligence it is totally co-related with machine learning. You give machines intelligence to learn by their own experience [by] running an operation. We are achieving eight, nine, ten, level[s] of algorithms. After the second level of combinations the machine is doing everything on its own and a lot ethical points are now cropping up.” Using the example of autonomous vehicles, de Castro raises concerns not only about the ethics of machines making decisions (such as in a vehicular accident when the outcome of the machine’s decision could impact human safety), but also about the economic impact of replacing people with machines. He explains, for example, that: “up to 12% of the male population in Poland is somehow connected to driving jobs. So, when you don’t need drivers any more, you will have 12% of this whole population disrupted by these things. This is just the beginning.”

The third prediction he intends to raise at GITEX concerns the tech advances that he dubs the fourth industrial revolution, distinct from the third industrial revolution due to the velocity, scope and systems impact of those advances. As de Castro explains: “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”
As for his final forecast, de Castro calls it: “IoT trash. With [the Internet of Things] we are going to have six billion connections by 2020 and this means all this hardware will have been placed in our streets. The question then is with the lifetime of technology being very [short], the batteries will last longer than the technologies. If we just abandon [this] hardware on our streets we are going to have a lot of IoT trash, electronic garbage in the streets.”
With AI and IoT becoming an integral part of the global urban landscape at an unprecedented pace, these are challenges that society will face. Ultimately, though, De Castro asserts that it is working together which leads to a successful project: “Smart cities are…a change of mindset. It is the whole society evolving to a new concept of living together.”

Renato de Castro, smart city expert is appearing in the Smart Cities stream at GITEX Conference 2017