Qualcomm had a smart city event last week where they talked about the operational and financial advantages that those living or working in a smart city would enjoy.
Shortly after watching this presentation, I watched the movie “Free Guy” (I loved the movie), which unintentionally featured the concepts of a smart city done well and one done quite poorly.
Smart cities are coming, though I agree with Qualcomm that most will likely be done poorly at first and need to be redone due to the lack of city and state expertise in smart technology.
Let’s talk smart cities. Then we’ll close with my product of the week: the Amazon Astro robot.
Smart City Competence
Qualcomm’s event opened with a panel consisting of its CEO Cristiano Amon, Jim Reynolds, co-founder of JLC Infrastructure (a leading smart city partner), and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is also a co-founder of JLC.
Cristiano argued that cities need CTOs because they lack the core knowledge of the benefits of smart city technology and how to deploy that technology effectively. Governments of all sizes often get excited about technologies they don’t understand and partner with solutions providers who can’t understand a problem their customers don’t understand. The result is a lot of wasted money with little to show for it.
According to Cristiano, Qualcomm has had to step into several cities as if they were the CTO to prevent what otherwise might have been failed deployments.
Qualcomm, because it is a parts and technology supplier, not a solutions provider, is less biased as to the approach. The company has substantial knowledge on how to do a smart city effectively and inexpensively. Its “intelligence at the edge” tactic reduces network traffic but still focuses on expanding instrumentation broadly so that city services can be both more responsive and more financially effective.
This approach is constructive during this time of labor shortage. Even if cities have the money, they often lack human resources for operations, so assuring a higher degree of efficiency is critical to the effort.
Given how jobs like this are often filled through relationships not based on competence, I think that assuring the person in this job is capable may be where this process will often break down. CTOs set the technology vision for a company. As governments increasingly use technology, particularly as we move to AI, it will be critical that high competence is assured throughout the process.
‘Free Guy’ and Dumb Cities
The movie “Free Guy” takes place in an MMORPG or massive multiplayer online role-playing game. This game is in a city, and, initially, it is a showcase for how to do a smart city badly. To keep complexity down, the NPCs (non-player characters) are in a loop and, if they vary from that loop, they are punished. This representation would be like doing a smart city with rigid schedules; everyone commutes, breaks for lunch, and goes home at the same times each day.
Before the pandemic, that was how many municipalities were sub-optimized. This methodology, where “rush hours” and city services are managed on a schedule, is required because of human management which doesn’t scale very well.
This in turn relegates citizens to an artificial schedule that may not make sense for them or city services. For instance, why have roads nearly empty for much of the day and then gridlocked twice a day, rather than spreading out the traffic? That way we’d get full utilization of those roads throughout the day and night.
At the end of “Free Guy” the NPC population, which had become sentient, was free to set schedules that best suited them and focus more on work/life balance as opposed to regimented work. That is the way a smart city should operate.
Smart Cities and Quantum AI
Coincidently, another event last week put on by R Street on Quantum AI showcased that the concept of a Quantum AI could be well-suited for smart city efforts.
Quantum computing is ideal for highly complex problems with massive variables and the need for highly accurate predicted outcomes. The technology has been advancing into limited production of late, even though we are years away from a quantum computer with the number of qubits needed to meet its world-changing potential.
The quantum approach to problem solving is being used before these computers mature. This strategy shows distinct advantages when it comes to the ability to solve complex problems very quickly. The smart city of the future will have millions of sensors and data inputs that will need to work in real-time to assure city services and expenses are minimized and yet still very effective.
Therefore, Quantum AI may eventually be critical to optimizing the smart city of the future exhaustively.
Digital Twins and Epcot: Creating the Future Smart City
Decades ago, Walt Disney created the Epcot concept of a future city. It became a little amusement park, though Disney had instead set out to create a well-planned future city. Technologically advanced for its time and highly instrumented, it was a smart city concept before we had coined the phrase “smart city.”
The level of centralized autocratic control would have been problematic from a people governance perspective. Still, the resulting and impressively expensive physical model of the plan was reasonably well optimized for the time.
Today we can use offerings like Nvidia Omniverse and digital twins to create models like this in the metaverse for much less, and with far more flexibility in fleshing out the designs, then optimizing them.
While it might make more financial sense for future smart cities to start from scratch because existing cities tend to grow organically, the reality is that most smart cities will be built into existing cities.
Creating a digital twin of the city as it exists and then using that twin to create a future virtual version of the city in the metaverse, using a tool like Nvidia Omniverse, will allow the city planners to flesh out a long-term plan.
This method will also help avoid many of the wasteful mistakes most cities make while expanding and then needing to fix that expansion. If you make mistakes in the metaverse, you don’t have to incur the much higher costs of making and fixing them in the real world.
Smart City Living
The Qualcomm panel made some interesting predictions about what it would be like to live in a smart city.
For example, rather than weekly trash pickups, you’d only have your trash picked up when it was full; then instead of a fixed charge, you’d be charged for the amount of trash you generated. This flexible fee structure would better promote conservation, though we’d want to increase monitoring for illegal dumping as people tried to get around these charges.
The city might specify when certain areas should be commuting and provide incentives and penalties to help move the population around, based on employment, to optimize road use while incentivizing businesses to have more flexible work hours.
Due to the pandemic, many people are used to working from home. So, you might have a situation where your company worked with the city to pick days of the week for you and your peers to come into the office. In addition, this might also result in some employees being asked to work from home both because of the nature of their jobs and to minimize traffic.
Incentives for solar power and rainwater capture could target areas where pulling power is expensive, or where most rain isn’t going to aquifers. Working with a blend of cable companies and satellite connectivity providers, such as Starlink, a municipality could increase and optimize connectivity. For a smart city to work, people must be connected. In many cities they aren’t — so fixing that has to be part of the plan.
Balancing between instrumenting and privacy will be an issue, but the industry has a solution called a federated database system. This practice allows you to analyze data and make decisions on it without violating the privacy of those that are contributing the data.
The right way to do a smart city is to use the instrument without violating privacy and then provide the services based on need, both lowering the costs to citizens and providing the best set of city services at the lowest cost.
Smart cities are our future. They promise less traffic, more responsive critical services (EMT/fire/police) — and much faster, better responses to localized artificial and natural disasters.
But cities don’t have CTOs to help with this technology and often choose their technology partner before understanding the technology they need to deploy, leading to failures.
Technologies like 5G, federated databases, ever more intelligent sensors, and the eventual emergence of advanced artificial intelligence engines using quantum technology will eventually create these cities.
Digital twins and the metaverse can allow cities to develop a plan for tomorrow, well before some of these technologies fully emerge, to assure that anything done early on doesn’t have to be redone. There is a low-cost path to the smart city of the future. Sadly, most cities aren’t yet on it.
Amazon Astro Robot
Amazon has been trying to expand its unique AI solutions by adding robotics. First was the new Echo Show where the screen followed as you moved and, most recently, they announced the Amazon Astro robot, which has wheels and can follow you around the home.
Advantages to a mobile solution are that you may not need an Echo in every room but could instead have the Echo follow you around, so it is where you are. However, it’s at ground level, making the screen a bit iffy to see; and even the initial teaser price of $999 is so much more than an Echo that you could probably get an Echo for each of your rooms instead and save money.
In addition, Astro won’t do stairs, and it has no arms or hands, so it can’t carry anything without help. It does have a compartment to carry stuff but, for most of us it will likely be easier to get the item yourself than using the robot.
So, it is best for those with a one-story house and who need its primary feature: the ability to navigate the home remotely and see things.
For instance, if you were worried you left the oven or iron on, the robot could be sent to check for you. If you needed the robot to visually check on a pet, assuming the robot can get to the pet and it isn’t hiding (cats, I’m talking to you), then it could do that too.
Astro could also help in the garage if you are working under your car and need to reference something. It could also help teach your kids about robotics. Another anticipated use would be as a virtual pet where, with the right app, it could pretend to be a cat or a dog and teach your kids to care and feed without putting a living animal at risk.
The Astro robot is reasonably well designed with a low center of gravity and oversized wheels that should navigate rugs, on-floor wiring, and carpet. It will work best for people who need a remote-controlled mobile camera to check on loved ones, pets, or what they may have forgotten.
It will automatically alert if it detects an unrecognized sound and probably would work best for those already heavily invested in the Ring platform for security (it can be tied to the Ring Protect Pro service).
A future application will allow Astro to monitor an aging or disabled person, providing peace of mind when a caregiver needs to leave to run errands or go to work. For privacy, it has a one-button switch for the microphones and camera. Oh, and while the monitor doesn’t move up and down, the camera does, which is helpful if you want to check a stove or make sure a door is locked.
While this class of products is improving at an incredible pace, the Astro robot is a decent attempt to create a basic personal robot. For those that can use its limited features (it might be worth it to check on what the cat knocked off the shelf in the middle of the night), the Amazon Astro robot could be handy — and it is also my product of the week.