Using Satellite Imagery, This AI Traces Urban Wealth

Penny is an artificial intelligence program that detects affluence from space. It also lets users experiment with how different visual forms affect its perception of an area's wealth.
July 29, 2017, 11am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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The patterns of urban wealth and poverty, apparently, are obvious enough for an AI to discern. Laura Bliss writes, "A joint collaboration between Stamen Design, DigitalGlobe, and Carnegie Mellon University, Penny is artificial intelligence that can 'read' satellite imagery of two very different cities and judge the income brackets of neighborhoods within them."

Focusing on New York and St. Louis, the program judges wealth from visual patterns alone, not from "knowing" how any building or feature is used. "The tool is meant to provoke conversation around a conclusion with scientific backing: Wealth is visible from space—and can be tracked as its contours invariably shift."

In the future, could AI help planners make better decisions? Or is it too inhuman an instrument? "Already, artificial intelligence is being used to help govern cities in certain contexts, such as predicting where traffic and crime might occur. How far into urban space should AI tread?"

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Published on Friday, June 30, 2017 in CityLab
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