I had a late night out last night (No, nothing particularly entertaining to report; just a late night) and had to drive home along much of the length of a major urban road in northern Baltimore city. Twice I sat at red lights for over a minute while the non-existent traffic on the small cross street got its turn. While cursing my luck and tempting my inner demons simply to pass through the lights, I also wondered what the cost to the city would be to have either traffic-monitoring cameras retrofitted to the lights or at least to have a timer that moved the lights to flashing yellow for the main street at, say midnight. Why couldn’t we have a light/traffic system ‘smart’ enough to keep the cars moving wherever possible or necessary? My thoughts were mimicking IBM’s periodic commercials for ‘,’ of course. Could my impatience and my desire to respond to my better angels both benefit? Am I allowing myself to be fitted into a corporate grid of inflexibility and power?
Anne Altmanm, General Manager of IBM’s Public Sector business, posted a story on The Huffington Post last week about not just the possibilities of smarter cities, but that many cities are already taking strides toward ‘smartness.’ The tropes that IBM’s public faces and commercials usually discuss are smarter electric and/or traffic grids, better water utilization, and opportunities to protect the citizenry via technology. Ms. Altman points to these issues as well in two cities. Chesapeake Virginia is working to improve the efficiencies of water delivery and traffic flow. These improvements have also helped police and fire departments respond to emergencies.
Meanwhile, Memphis Tennessee’s police department is using aggregating analytical software to locate potential ‘hot spots’ of crime. Then resources can be moved around to deter possible violence or at least respond quickly if crimes are committed. “Memphis and Chesapeake are great examples of how cities can take advantage of technology to provide citizens with a better place to live. Intelligent systems can save precious government dollars and have shown to have a strong return on investment. In this economy, the business of government doesn’t necessarily mean cutting public services, but should mean transforming the way they are delivered. Municipalities can use the money saved from water or energy leaks by fixing outdated delivery methods to pay for updated systems.”
As another part of the PR push, Iris Kuo posted on VentureBeat a story about how smart technologies can make buildings and homes not only energy efficient, but energy predictive: “[The technology] also accounts for energy costs, which normally vary throughout the day. So, for example, if the weather forecast says it’s going to be hot tomorrow, BuildingIQ’s system can precool the building the night before, taking advantage of cheap energy purchased in off-peak hours. Or if there’s money to made by reducing energy usage during peak hours – some utilities provide incentives for doing so — then the system can predict and implement solutions to take advantage of that.” The posting was republished by the New York Times, from which we transcribed the quote.
Could such smart technologies be leading us toward a world in which crimes are preemptively prosecuted (a la “Minority Report“), or anyone whose data shows them wasting water is in some way chastised? We are no friends of corporations, but the chances of such abuse by IBM or any other multi-national technology firm could be fairly easily controlled with some balanced public-sector/government oversight and control of the very systems IBM and its peers wish to establish. Indeed, the development of smart technologies could be a great opportunity for our society to re-imagine the interplay of the private and public sectors (As an aside: if I ever could interview a Tea Party Candidate, I would ask him/her what should happen to the roads that they drove to their latest fund raiser. How has the interstate highway system impinged upon anyone’s constitutional liberty?). Could we create a partnership that allows the IBMs of the world the freedom to innovate yet ensures publicly-elected/accountable representatives will oversee the systems we develop through private investment and public support to ensure public safety and individual freedoms? My damage to the environment was at its worst while I sat idling at red lights that offered neither neither personal safety nor meaningful traffic control.
Will abuses arise? Sure. Abuses with guns arise all the time, but many argue the right to own one should not be curtailed because of some abuses. Courts act as checks and balances among legislators, private interests, criminals, and police. So why not apply that logic to developing and improving our grid systems? Or should I not expect that IBM can build a planet THAT smart?