Smart City in China Uses AI to Get to Know Citizens Better

The new project will know your favorite drink and deliver your coffee. But where does the data go?
Chris Young

A smart city project in China promises to put artificial intelligence (AI) in charge, allowing everything from public transport to small amenities such as coffee-delivering robots to run on its system.

Danish architecture firm BIG and Chinese tech company Terminus discussed plans to build an AI-run campus-style development during an online panel at Web Summit, WE Forum reports.


Do we trust AI?

Do we trust AI? The real question might be, do we trust those running it? Terminus Group advertises its project as being all about citizen comfort and efficiency: robots will supposedly deliver coffee, and office chairs will rearrange themselves after meetings.

And yet, where does all that citizen data go, and how is it used? The project, named Cloud Valley, plans to use sensors and wifi-connected devices to gather data on everything from people's eating habits to pollution, explained Terminus founder Victor Ai.

"It's almost coming back to this idea of living in a village where, when you show up, even though it's the first time you're there, the bartender knows your favorite drink," said BIG's founding partner Bjarke Ingels.

"When our environment becomes sensing and sentient ... we can really open up that kind of seamlessness because the AI can recognize people coming. So it can open the door, so they don't have to look for their key cards."

Launched in April, the Cloud Valley project aims to build a city of approximately 13 million square feet, which is equal to about 200 soccer pitches.  

Terminus' AI city plans

As WE Forum writes, Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior researcher at British advocacy group Privacy International, said smart cities risk undermining human rights if companies and governments do not ensure there is a limit on surveillance and a focus on inclusivity.

"We need to ask, for instance, how the city will affect people who may not be tech literate," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

"This risk is all the greater when there is not a legal framework limiting the access that governments can obtain over the data collected by private companies."

The people at Terminus envision a city where you wake up to an AI virtual housekeeper named Titan selecting your breakfast, matching your outfit with the weather, and presenting you with your full day's schedule. Depending who you are, that might sound like a utopia, or it might sound like Orwell's fictional surveillance state in "1984".

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