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AI in the Smart City: Experts Talk Risks and Rewards

A panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference explored how artificial intelligence is being deployed in a number of communities, as well as cautionary advice officials should heed when considering the technology.

City court officials in Austin used to spend a lot of time answering rote questions related to parking tickets, court dates and other issues.

Then about two years ago, the city began using a chatbot to field these requests. The move made life easier not only for workers in the court system, but also residents.

“They had a challenge with individuals coming down, asking questions about paying tickets,” explained Austin CIO Stephen Elkins during a panel discussion last week at the Smart Cities Connect Conference in Denver.

“And so, what the court basically was finding was that they had a long line of individuals — some folks had questions about tickets, some had other questions. By pulling out the ticketing questions, they shortened the queue. There was a better experience with the residents as well as the employees,” Elkins added.

The discussion, titled “The Role of AI in the Rise of Smart Cities,” explored how artificial intelligence is being deployed across a number of communities, its ideal applications and cautionary warnings officials should keep in mind when considering the emerging technology.

“I think anything that requires waiting in line — a checklist type of thing — there’s an opportunity to use AI,” said Elkins.

AI applications in the daily lives of residents will only grow, panelists said, particularly considering the emergence of next-generation wireless communication technologies like 5G.

“In our personal lives, we don’t go to the banks as much as we used to. We don’t even have to go to the grocery stores anymore,” the CIO offered. “And so we need to start shifting the behavior in government to match the behavior that the residents are used to.”

Jon Lewis, vice president of urban data at wireless smart city technology provider Telensa, believes the shift toward AI is part of a “natural evolution” that is moving closer and closer to approximating its human creators.

“Processing has got to the point where we can start emulating the human brain,” said Lewis, explaining some of the societal apprehension around AI.

“AI is not hype. It’s here,” said Elkins. “We all have devices in our pockets that we talk to, we get answers, we get responses from. And that is living in reality.”

The technology can help city departments with service delivery, as well as helping governments move further along with their sustainability goals for example, said Petra Dalunde, chief operating officer for Swedish think tank Urban ICT Arena.

“AI should definitely help humankind to become a better thing,” she said. “Also, it should help us reach the sustainability goals. That’s No. 1.”

“In Sweden at the moment, AI is super-hyped,” she added. “It’s like a frenzy, and we need to slow down a bit to not lose use of these investments.”

Dalunde cautioned against diving into artificial intelligence simply for the sake of technology and without adequately thinking through the system and its technologies.

“AI could be like the icing on a molded muffin,” Dalunde quipped. “It looks really nice, but as soon as you start eating, it’s not all that fun."

She urged those interested in the artificial intelligence to slow down, work with others and learn from their lessons. Elkins agreed, saying AI should be viewed as a portal to better engage with the community and put data to good use.

“Lets make sure everyone understands that AI is augmenting, not replacing,” said Elkins. “And I’d say also that we need to make sure that we have the right infrastructure in place. We need to make sure that we have the space for the big data, that we have the data scientists to help design and figure where the opportunities are.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.