Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Telecommunication network above city, wireless mobile internet technology for smart grid or 5G LTE data connection, concept about IoT, global business, fintech, blockchain
Telecommunication network above city, wireless mobile internet technology for smart grid or 5G LTE data connection, concept about IoT, global business, fintech, blockchain

Smart Cities?: Proceed With Caution!

Zaheer Allam provides a balanced view of the future impact of AI on society

Should your government help better your life by social engineering based on your data? I hope not. Monitoring citizens compromises their liberty. Maximal self-sovereignty is a load-bearing pillar on which freedom rests.

In his monograph “Cities and the Digital Revolution”1, Zaheer Allam reaches a nice Goldilocks zone when considering the future impact of AI on society. On the “porridge is too cold” extreme is Yuval Noah Harari, whose book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and supporting article in The Atlantic, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny” (2018), outline a depressing dystopian future where humanity is controlled by AI invading every pore of our lives. I think Harari’s depressing forecasts are generally silly.2

On the other side, “the porridge is too hot,” is John Tamny. His 2018 book, The End of Work: Why Your Passion Can Become Your Job, wonderfully describes how our future will be made easier by high tech that allows us to pursue income-producing dreams, freeing us from mere drudgery to earn money. I like Tamny’s optimism and suspect his forecast will prove more right than wrong.

Allam’s monograph sits in the Goldilocks middle. It focuses on the impact of AI on our cities of the future in a well-documented scholarly fashion that nonetheless does not read like boring scholarly prose. Far from it, his prose is crisp, to the point, well documented and, most important to those of us with short attention spans, fun to read.

How will AI impact the cities of the future? Wikipedia has a substantial entry on “Smart Cities.” But should governments practice social engineering based on collected data? Gobs of data can be collected from our browsing, GPS sensors, and the internet of things. This Big Data, some claim, can be used to organize and seamlessly run a city. The goals are noble but we are far from gaining useful information from mined data. Pomona College economist Gary Smith has written some stellar books outlining concerns of the accuracy of data mining.3

One fundamental concern is that AI, like many politicians, has no common sense. The so-called Winograd Schema common-sense challenge to AI remains unsolved. That is, in the sentence “I can’t smash that bug with your shoe because it is too humongous,” we know that the pronoun “it” refers to the bug and not the shoe. AI will not be so sure. Likewise, spurious correlations in Big Data can miss the mark to the point of being hilarious: “US spending on science, space and technology” correlates in time almost perfectly with “suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation.” Humans are needed in the loop to mitigate such correlation coincidences. Like a toddler running around the living room full of valuable vases, Big Data needs human supervision.

Big Data remains incompetent. In some areas, Amazon probably knows more about me than my wife. I share my Amazon prime account with my daughter who buys from the site as much as I do. The account is in my name. Amazon, despite its reputation for sophisticated data mining and AI, isn’t smart enough to know that a male senior citizen, me, isn’t interested in emails hawking sippy cups. That is, Amazon does not know how to parse data from two distinct users. Data mining for Smart Cities certainly needs to be smarter than Amazon.4

Another concern about Smart Cities is the unintended consequences of AI. Self-driving cars, for example, can be confused by a wind-blown plastic bag. As the complexity of AI increases linearly, the number of unintended consequences increases exponentially. Proposed Smart City-managing AI looks complex in conception. That can be mitigated by disjunctive design, i.e. constructing siloed applications instead of one big general AI system.

My biggest concern about Smart Cities is the Big Brother impact. Smart Cities will supposedly better our lives through the collection of data. According to Wikipedia, “This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets …” Notice the inclusion of “citizens.” In other words you and me. I don’t want the government to collect data from me. If I’m not violating the law, the government has no business monitoring what I do. In the United States, this right is guaranteed by the fourth amendment to the US Constitution. Privacy is a fundamental component of liberty.

A few decades ago, I was an organizer for a professional neural networks conference in the city/state of Singapore. What a wonderful clean country it was! Many attributed this to Singapore law. I was told that anyone convicted of murder, rape, or dealing drugs got no second chance. They were tried and, if guilty, executed. Recall the 1994 Singapore incident where a 19-year-old American was convicted of graffiti vandalism. He was sentenced to four swings with a long whacking cane on his backside.5 Singapore doesn’t mess around with crime. When I visited, leaving a public toilet unflushed carried a fifty dollar fine. And because of its environmental impact, chewing gum is outlawed. Really.

Although I occasionally enjoy chewing gum, I kind of liked Singapore’s no-nonsense response to breaking the law. But my mind was changed after asking a National University of Singapore professor how he liked living in Singapore, with its uncompromising legal system. Not wishing to be overheard, he whispered

“Have you ever driven and been followed by a police car?”

I assured him I had.

“Living in Singapore is like this.” He said. “Even though you are not doing anything wrong, you clinch the steering wheel with white knuckles nearly paralyzed with fear you might inadvertently do something wrong.”

This Big Brother impact is bound to happen if some have their way in designing of Smart Cities: “This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets…” We’ll all be living with white knuckles while the government monitors our activities. In some Smart City master plans, our privacy will be seriously compromised.

I don’t want the government collecting data from me. First, unaccountable bureaucracies with little scrutiny become bloated and inefficient. Witness the frustration felt when visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Social Service Office in the United States. Take a number and wait—typically for a long time.

Recently, Texas Governor Greg Abbott outlawed the use of cameras at red lights.

Bravo! I haven’t had an auto accident in over fifty years. My safe driving history gives me a reduced car insurance rate. 6 What right does the government have to use AI to monitor what I do at traffic lights? It only gives innocent me Singaporean white knuckles because Big Brother is watching.

Potential for governmental tyranny needs to be avoided in Smart Cities. For one thing, Big Data monitoring of citizens can be used to weaponize attacks on legitimate political opponents. It’s happening today in China.

Finally, Allam is a proponent of the use of Big Data in environmental monitoring and control. I’m a big fan of reasonable environmental control. I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio where, 50 years ago, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I remember grease balls the size of baseballs washing up on Lake Erie shores. My father, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18, made a great living helping dredge Lake Erie’s polluted sludge bottom. Environmental legislation and monitoring helped restore this pollution extreme, so things are a lot better today.

When I visited a couple of decades ago, the cities of Beijing and Mexico City suffered from lung-burning air pollution. After the first full day, for both cities, I felt I had chain-smoked three packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes and deeply inhaled every puff.

Those who discuss how the world can be bettered via policy will always differ on specifics. Zaheer Allam and I agree on nearly everything from the need for privacy to responsible environmental monitoring. Yesterday there were tornado warnings in my hometown of McGregor, Texas. I turned on my cell phone and, there it was, without any scrolling or button-pushing: the latest on the local tornado warnings around McGregor. This example of top-down AI in Smart Cities is great. I don’t mind paying taxes to support cyber services like this any more than I do for supporting local police and for building roads. With thought and careful planning, I can see AI enabling Smart Cities to enhance human flourishing without imposing Big Brother oversight. So, government AI, stay out of my business and let’s proceed cautiously.


1 Zaheer Allam “Cities and the Digital Revolution,” Palgrave MacMillan, 2019. These reflections follow closely from the book’s Foreword, written by me.

2 Robert J. Marks, “Bingecast: Yuval Harari’s Silly Dystopian Ideas,” podcast interview with Jay Richards, Mind Matters.ai (May 30, 2019)

3 See, for example, The AI Delusion, (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Gary Smith and Jay Cordes, The 9 Pitfalls of Data Science (Oxford University Press, 2019). Dr.Smith has also written a number of articles for Mind Matters News, including “Computers’ stupidity makes them dangerous,” and “We see the pattern!—but is it real? Patterns are not always a source of information. Often, they are a meaningless coincidence like the 7-11 babies this summer.”

4 I suspect the problem could be solved using data clustering. See Meng, Lei, Ah-Hwee Tan, and Donald Wunsch. Adaptive Resonance Theory in Social Media Data Clustering. Springer International Publishing, 2019.

5 The caning incident was soon whimsically treated in the Weird Al Yankovic song “Headline News.”

6 Admittedly, I have gotten a few speeding tickets I deserved.

Further reading: One of our Mind Matters News contributors, Michael Egnor, has also responded to Harari’s concerns:

Is free will a dangerous myth? Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor argues that Harari’s denial of free will is “a much more dangerous myth”


AI is indeed a threat to democracy But not in quite the way historian Yuval Noah Harari thinks.

Smart Cities?: Proceed With Caution!