What if machine intelligence was in complete control of the city and its citizens? This science-fiction scenario could become technically feasible, and clues to its possible modus operandi are already surfacing. Displacing human administration for a ‘Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service’ is far more profound than technical implementation of Smart City systems. This future has political, philosophical and perhaps existential dimensions.
On the eve of the 2020s, Earth hosts 7.7 billion humans, 55% of them living in urban areas. There are also 3.3 billion smartphones. These numbers will increase. Humanity must face the climate emergency, but it also needs to wake up to where its digital urban future is going.
In the 1950s, the American mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann predicted that artificial intelligence would eventually exceed human intelligence, achieving a state called ‘superintelligence’. A superintelligent computer would be capable of self-improvement, leading to further exponential intelligence growth without human input and beyond human control. Von Neumann called the arrival of superintelligence a technological ‘singularity’, and he said that after it, ‘human affairs, as we know them, could not continue’1.
What is popularly called ‘the singularity’ remains hypothetical. Some dismiss singularity narratives as merely our fears or hopes for salvation dubiously projected onto new technology. In a 2019 London talk, media theorist Joanna Zylinska suggested that technology-based predictions such as cyborgs and the singularity offers the male an ‘elevation to god-like status’ in a gender-biased fantasy propagated by Silicon Valley. In 2017, technologists were asked to guess when the singularity will occur. Some said it will never happen, but others guessed that it could come as early as the 2020s.
Superintelligence would be a powerful tool to apply to the management of cities. Cities concentrate not just population, but also power, wealth, culture, education and innovation. Many have an international presence stronger than the nations that host them. In the 2020s, megacities, meaning urban conglomerations of 10 million or more, will increase in number from 33 to 43, and by 2035, eight cities are predicted to have a GDP of $1trillion or more. Cities such as these could be considered as humanity’s most valuable assets. They and almost all other major cities face threats of rising sea-levels, food supply disruption, water security, social unrest and the spread of pandemics. The complexity, value and vulnerability of cities is so great that, even before the singularity, their management will inevitably migrate towards artificial intelligence.
Von Neumann saw the singularity as disruptive, but whatever effects it has on humanity, cities will persist. Let is imagine a system called a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service, or USIUS. It may be a single entity, or distributed over a network in which different AI centres collaborate or compete. However configured, USIUS runs the city and citizens in it.
USIUS may seem like an advanced version of Smart City, but there is a big difference. The Smart City is a concept now being developed in some neighbourhoods around the world in which infrastructure is designed, monitored and controlled to optimise municipal functions. One of the most advanced Smart City plans in 2019 is the new Canadian city quarter of Sidewalk Toronto. It is planned to be saturated with systems which, for example, monitor and separate your rubbish, or adaptive traffic lights which profile those crossing the road (old people, for example, get more crossing time). Don Doctoroff , the CEO of developer Sidewalk Labs, says the waterside development will ‘fundamentally redefine what urban life can be’.
But technology that fundamentally redefines urban life is already here, and it is in our hands rather than infrastructure. The relationship between citizens and city is being sucked into a palm-sized rectangle — the phone screen — and the gatekeepers of this window between the real and digital are Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iOS. Through the screen, AI monitors us by the choices we swipe and tap (and geolocates us), while we scrutinise city’s possibilities, its people, places and products presented in AI-curated lists.
The theme of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture or UABB 2019 in Shenzhen (opening December 2019) is ‘Eyes of the City’, referring to how ‘architectural space is acquiring the full ability to ‘see’. This phenomenon, with roots in CCTV, will be key in the City of the Singularity. But the most numerous eyes the city has are phone screens, and they look both ways. The basic interface between a USIUS system and the city itself is already here, and it gives USIUS the capacity to read, shape and condition the lives of its citizens.
We seem to be sleepwalking into an immersive digital future. The blurring of reality and virtual reality (VR) plays a vital role in this sleepwalk. Augmented reality (AR) already inserts 2D graphics (such as Pokémon creatures) into the world. Extra visual layers will advance to 3D insertions as the screen view is triangulated and matched to maps. That’s as far as it may go with a phone screen, but wearable technology will enable a deep AR city, with a vanishing dependency on its real element. Those with digitally enhanced vision need not wear anything extra to see and move through it. VR and AR will be amongst the many tools available to USIUS.
In his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle2, French philosopher-activist Guy Debord argued that authenticity had been replaced by representations of commodities, delivered through propaganda and advertising, which effectively makes us slaves to capitalism. He described the Spectacle itself as ‘a social relation among people, mediated by images’. At the very least, the smartphone is the mediator of the contemporary Spectacle. In the common ground of the city, our actions are shaped by digital capitalism. The mission of capitalism is profit.
Alphabet Inc, a holding company whose assets include Google, Sidewalk Labs and AI-development company DeepMind, is an obvious candidate to eventually develop USIUS, but the commercial gains of controlling cities will attract many parties. Nor is profit the only possible mission for USIUS. Non-commercial objectives generated by political and ethical considerations may define the mission. Different missions produce different cities. Our future lives could be entirely shaped by that mission.
USIUS missions will be explored in part two of The City of the Singularity (expected posting mid-November 2019).
1. John von Neumann recalled by Stanislaw Ulam, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol 64, no.3, part 2, 1958
2. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Buchet Chastel, 1957)