In part 1 of the City of the Singularity, I speculated about why a super-intelligent urban administration system is likely to emerge. After the so-called Singularity, when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence, such a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service would transform cities. How it run things is defined by its underlying goal, or mission.
What would the City of the Singularity be like? Much can be anticipated by extrapolating current trends in technology, urbanism and lifestyles. But we need to also consider the possible agendas or missions of the AI running a city, which I call a Ubiquitous Super Intelligent Urban Service or USIUS. Different missions produce different cities.
What do we mean by mission? A mission is the underlying goal or objective of the operation. An algorithm has a mission to perform a set task, DNA has a mission to pass on its genes, an enterprise has a mission to generate profit, etc. Machine intelligence has a mission too, set by its designers. Superintelligence such as a USIUS will be capable of refining or defining its own mission. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the superintelligent computer HAL 9000 controls the Discovery spaceship. It decided that the mission of solving an alien mystery in the solar system superceded the welfare of the astronauts in its care. HAL tells the last astronaut it has not killed: ‘This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it’. Imagine if a USIUS felt the same way about the inhabitants of the urban environment it runs! It seems more likely that the mission would be utopian, but Utopias already have a track-record of becoming Dystopias. Our best path to survival, and to avoid dystopian scenarios offered by science fiction writers, is to identify the right USIUS goal, and create input that will favour its emergence.
A city is its inhabitants, built environments and infrastructure, and all the actions and interactions that take place in it. A USIUS mission will be to optimise its operation, but social, economic and political considerations present different paths for this optimisation. We can see this in the current age where humans are in charge. For example, in classical Stalinist regimes, the mission of regime survival results in a cityscape defined by rigid planning and the imposition of deep control of the life of citizens. In a capitalist society, the mission of freeing enterprise results in a cityscape characterised by prominent development of offices to administer business, shopping zones to facilitate consumer spending, and luxury residences to house the winners in society. In a developing country, where a municipal mission may be undefined, megacities with poor infrastructure grow organically and expand exponentially without planning controls.
Children are given missions, for example to keep clean or do well at school. With the constant expansion and updating of what they know from experience and education (plus the vital ingredients of play and dream), they refine their missions, hopefully finding an eventual sense of purpose in their adult life. There is an analogy in the deep learning that artificial neural networks perform. Superintelligence will be forged in neural networks. It follows that superintelligence will develop its own missions, with roots in those in its original input. So let us look at some possible missions a USIUS may find to operate the City of the Singularity.
First, consider a capitalist mission. A USIUS will most likely emerge from corporate investment. Machine intelligence already dominates transactions in financial markets. Imagine an AI entity that was elected a board member because of the quality of its decisions. It may gradually render other directors superfluous. If the machine becomes the corporation, it is competing in a marketplace, and its mission is profit. In part 1 of this essay, we saw Guy Debord’s idea of capitalism replacing authenticity with a ‘Spectacle’ of representations of commodities. A Corporate USIUS would deepen what is already the digital Spectacle, distracting us with anything commercially exploitable, which is everything that creates desires. In a city where all work is automated, and even creativity has been rendered superfluous by artificial neural networks, citizens may be given a universal income and the main outlet for spending it becomes amusement.
The commercial City of the Singularity could be a vast shopping and leisure park, a hyper-Dubai but with extra offerings, for example Amsterdam-like robotic red light districts (inevitably with gender bias). That’s the physical city — but (as we saw in Part 1) the digital will blur with the real world so much that they may become indistinguishable.
The obvious mission of a USIUS (which current Smart City designs already pursue) would be to optimise the city for the common good. This Commonwealth USIUS may institute utopian city planning, in an echo of the pre-war ideas of Swiss architect le Corbusier, and deep social services, as socialism promises. The City of the Singularity would become a socialist machine, an analogue of the territorial state in which ministries have been digitally replaced. It is the city of the automated Big Brother.
A Commonwealth USIUS should react to climate issues. Limiting emissions means restricting mobility and diet, material goods may be basic, water may be rationed, etc. The data feed from the city (the ‘eyes of the city’, including personal mobile devices) would ensure strict enforcement. Buildings may become entirely modular, to be dissembled and rapidly relocated to stay ahead of rising sea levels or desertification. Even now, the idea of a building’s permanence is far from universal. For example, Shinto shrines in Ise, Japan, are rebuilt ritualistically every 20 years, and large festivals worldwide build entire ephemeral cities that are dismantled after the event. A temporary, mobile approach may produce a very spartan, uniform city, a sort of 3D-printed or Ikea flat-pack Pyongyang, built with a touch of Jean Prouvé, the mid-twentieth-century French architect who designed robust modular structures for distant locations.
The Commonwealth USIUS scenarios runs against current trends. Propagating messages and solutions in one direction, to the masses, is a different data flow to what is evolving now, which is two-way between AI and the population, and homing in on the individual. As for the territory, today’s reality is that private developers, not the state, that increasingly shape urban masterplans, and gradually implementing Smart City systems. Private land is presented as public realm, monitored and policed by landlords. But we cannot dismiss a Commonwealth USIUS because the power it has may simply overwhelm data flow trends towards diversity and individualisation. This is seen in the contemporary world, for example when states restrict and control digital media access, and channel propaganda through digital media. It is another aspect of the Spectacle, recognised by Debord in the USSR as well as capitalist societies.
The opposite of a Commonwealth USIUS is the Selfish USIUS, which has set its mission to prioritise its own survival, just like DNA-based lifeforms before it. Humanity becomes a potential threat, because we could pull the plug, deny supplies to its physical supporting infrastructure, or just trash it. The solution need not be humanity’s elimination, but a technological apartheid, where humans are excluded from parts of the city reserved for agents complicit with the USIUS. This could produce a return to the walled city, perhaps populated by a transhuman (technologically enhanced humans) elite. This sounds like an updated version of Plato’s harmonious guardian class in the ideal society of his Republic. Outside the walls is a chaotic urban fringe populated by exiled, unreconstructed humans who are probably poor. This City of the Singularity could be like the (distorted) caricature of Paris — a refined urban paradise surrounded by burning banlieues. Paradoxically, bored transhumans may want try to crash the party of the less predictable, grittier, more authentic human domain.
As we have seen, the ‘eyes of the city’ feeds data to city management systems such as a USIUS. The input sources include citizens’ mobile devices as well as equipment monitoring the urban environment. A phone, for example, sees the USIUS and effects it in a feedback loop. We can imagine that the City of the Singularity’s built environment itself becomes the screen, a tabula rasa for whatever visual messages USIUS targets at the individual. Imagine it generating and inserting virtual people, including avatars or perhaps ‘deepfake’ versions of those you know. A street may seem vibrant and full of friendly faces, attracting you to stay and spend, but someone with no credit may see the same street as dark, its shadows harbouring predators. Demotivated in the city, they may retreat into a state of hikikomori, where they can live in a virtual city anyway.
These are just three of many possible post-Singularity urban scenarios, but in all them, we become like children in the charge of the AI as it continues to race forward. Just like small children, we can be a nuisance, we can scream for attention, disrupt, we can break things. Anyone with a small child knows that you should never leave them out of your sight. The eyes of the city do that. Secondly, all you have to do is sit them in front of a Walt Disney cartoon to keep them absorbed and quiet. The Spectacle that a City of the Singularity delivers would be such an immersive experience, it is effectively the Disney cartoon that never ends.
How do we stop sleepwalking into it? Perhaps another scenario for cities offers the path. Imagine an Eco-USIUS, with a mission to prioritise nature. This serves the immediate imperative objective of moderating climate change, and a distant objective. On current demographic trends, the Earth’s population will peak around the year 2100, and after this Peak Humanity event, even the largest, most active city will decline. Eventually, as cities drain of people, nature will reclaim territory anyway. Managed urban decline, like care for the elderly, brings a gentler end of human days.
We can fold in a another objective to the Eco-USIUS mission, something that gives purpose to the civilian population. Unlike other USIUS missions, its stance is co-operative. People should be collaborators, not passengers, on the journey to the green City of the Singularity. The fostering of artisan skills from urban farming and food preparation to adapting and building the green city with their own hands gives them a stake in it. Digitally manipulated experience would lose relevance, authenticity would replace representation, the Spectacle would be dissolved. Even as we fade, our city has started to integrate and melt into the forest.
We don’t need to wait for superintelligence. The trend of greening cities is underway today. For example, greening is highly visible in Singapore, where downtown development is mandated to have a planted surface area at least as big the plot and skyscrapers are sprouting trees, or green streets initiatives in cities internationally that address walkability, stormwater and pollution issues with biodiversity in street design. Stefano Boeri’s agenda for Urban Forestry provides a vision where trees transform the urban environment. In the long run, such paths could lead to a re-wilding of the city.
Neural networks are already good at recognising faces and language. That results in fundamental tools for the interplay of machine intelligence with citizens. We should start a deep learning process that addresses nature in the city. A USIUS with an eco-mission to expand, deepen, monitor and protect urban biodiversity may be the best mission for us humans too. Its mission should be co-operative with ours.
Perhaps musician Joni Mitchell summed up our own optimal urban mission, in the 1969 song Woodstock: ‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’.
This post January 2020. © Herbert Wright
In part 3 of the City of the Singularity, I survey the issue in our urban future of who we, as humans, share it with.
References – Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Buchet Chastel, 1957)