How Autonomous Should Cities Be?

AI could automate many urban systems, but that may not mean it’s a good idea.

2 minute read

January 4, 2024, 10:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


View of traffic on a multilane highway with superimposed yellow triangles identifying vehicles.

zapp2photo / Adobe Stock

In an opinion piece in The Conversation, Federico Cugurullo cautions against letting artificial intelligence take too much control of our cities. As Cugurullo explains, the emerging field of AI urbanism differs from ‘smart cities’ that use data to manage urban services. “AI urbanism represents a new way of shaping and governing cities, by means of artificial intelligence (AI). It departs substantially from contemporary models of urban development and management.”

In other words, “AI urbanism does not simply quantify, it tells stories, explaining why and how certain events take place.” Yet, “as the recent example of ChatGPT has made clear, AI can produce a detailed account, without grasping its meaning.”

AI systems bring us closer to sci-fi worlds in which, for example, technology predicts where crime might happen. “This might save our city managers some time, given AI’s extraordinary velocity in analysing large volumes of data, but the price that we are paying in terms of social justice is enormous.”

Some drawbacks to AI pointed out by Cugurullo include its voracious energy consumption and demonstrated discrimination in housing and real estate that perpetuates historical patterns. Meanwhile, the more autonomous we make cities, the less control we have, Cugurullo claims.

“As the autonomy of AI grows, ours decreases and the rise of autonomous cities risks severely undermining our role in urban governance. A city run not by humans but by AIs would challenge the autonomy of human stakeholders, as it would also challenge many people’s wellbeing.”

 

Wednesday, January 3, 2024 in The Conversation

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