Image credit: Shinkazo / Flickr

Image credit: Shinkazo / Flickr

Editor’s Note: Here’s a story from our archives we feel is relevant even today and deserves your attention.

In 1984, William Gibson wrote his seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, which won three major sci-fi awards — the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award — for its vision of a dystopian underworld in Chiba City, Japan.

Although there is much that could be talked about regarding the significance of the book on popular culture today (including serving as inspiration for The Matrix films), the fictional Chiba City was in itself a highly futuristic vision of what cities would one day become (and have yet to reach) in the age of the Internet, Big Data, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and so on.

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Now, Keith Carter, a Visiting Senior Fellow of Decision Sciences at National University of Singapore Business School and author of Actionable Intelligence: A Guide to Delivering Business Results with Big Data Fast!, has told e27 in an interview that we may only be 15 years away from such a truly ‘smart city’. Big Data will be front and centre in this evolution.

“We need to see data as a tool as opposed to a weapon, which is one of the biggest challenges to companies. When I talk to big companies and ask if the marketing department is sharing data with the supply chain, the answer is still no — even at some of the best companies in the world. It’s the same with government,” Carter said.

“When I ask military is they’re effectively sharing intelligence with police, there’s still some gaps there. When you go to the land authority and talk to the economic department about whether they’re fully transparent with their data, it’s still a big challenge,” he added.

There’s a lot of data out there — growing 40 per cent per year and expected to grow 50 times by 2020, with 90 per cent of all the world’s data having been created in the past two years — but too often individuals and corporates are still choosing to hold on to that data in their own little silos. Why? Because data is power.

So what do we mean by a ‘smart city’ or ‘smart nation’? Carter offers a definition of his own:

A smart nation has a fully-connected data, decision-based infrastructure that allows people to become more efficient and take the guesswork out of daily life decisions.

“That sounds very easy, but it’s very, very hard. For example, one challenge we’re looking at right now is with the Singapore government’s clinics. How do you know which clinic you should go to based on the length of the line?” he said.

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Other examples include streamlining passport control and the customs process at airports (i.e. electronic gates with fingerprint scanners), or filing your tax returns. Both these processes are far ‘smarter’ in Singapore versus the United States, Carter says, and such initiatives are today separating young smart cities (or nations) from those yet to really make significant inroads.

Image credit: wongjp / Flickr

Image credit: wongjp / Flickr

Even compared to other major cities in Asia — Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc. — Singapore is still leading the way as an emerging smart nation. But Carter believes there is not yet a truly smart nation on the face of the planet, certainly not compared to the fictional portrayals of future cities we marvel at in the likes of Neuromancer, or his other favourite comparison — Ghost in the Shell (GITS).

GITS was a highly-popular Japanese cyberpunk manga series that ran between 1989 and 1997 and has since attained something of a cult status among fans of the genre. It was also spun off into a critically acclaimed anime series and films.

But for smart cities to really come to fruition of the type that would blow our 2015-conditioned minds, changes need to be made at the grassroots level.

“We need to change the school systems from the industrial- and manufacturing-focussed systems to a new model that is more [focussed] on information services… It’s going to look different from the type of assignments that we do early on,” Carter said.

“You see babies carrying iPads right now. Certainly as they get into first and second grade, they could be doing app development as part of science. They could be doing much more engaged learning… But the teachers don’t know the technology,” he added.

Carter thinks this type of engaging information technology learning needs to start earlier. It can’t wait till university.

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Ultimately, residents will one day be able to make all their daily decisions based on facts, not guesswork. But the seeds of tomorrow’s smart cities need to be planted today, and that means a shift in areas like education as much as it means developing faster computers, or working on AI systems.

Meanwhile, the trend towards wearables and the emerging Internet of Things space will produce Big Data that can help society better understand its residents’ sleeping patterns, or the logistics of moving them between the home and the office, among a whole plethora of other areas such as safety.

“There’s a tremendous safety factor to smart nations. As an airplane pilot, you’re taught that if you’re in distress you’re not allowed to get into a plane and fly. But how many drivers get behind a wheel flustered, distressed, etc., and go on to have a higher rate of accidents? This type of information will provide support for us to proactively assist them in a time of need,” Carter said.

Returning to the comparisons with Gibson’s Neuromancer and the Ghost In The Shell manga series, it really comes down to the amount of information the average person has access to at any given time.

“People are living an information-filled life [in these futures]. They can see a lot more right behind their eyes, from whom they are talking to to what’s going on in their business… As you walk around, you are getting feeds of all this information,” he said.

Access could be in the form of data-rich hologram projections — perhaps from smart contact lenses or implants — that take advantage of a city’s Big Data stores. The first step in this direction may well have been taken last week by Microsoft with the announcement of its ultra-futuristic HoloLens technology, ushering in ‘the era of holographic computing’.

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“The other part of it is integration with your health. So when you die, someone comes automatically to get you. No need to call an ambulance, they know already,” Carter said.

Data from a pacemaker in the chest of an elderly person walking down the street could be monitored by city-wide sensors, enabling an ambulance to arrive immediately during a crisis with all the medical records of that patient at hand. This is just one of countless examples.

“We don’t have to feel that far away from some of the visualisation and automation of information that is available for people in [fictional] utopias… I’m going to give it 15 years still. There’s biotechnology that needs to be settled, and other technology that people need to get comfortable with first,” he said.

Society becoming comfortable with something like embedding wearables and microchips will be an important step on the way to smart cities. Is it all very Orwellian? Perhaps, but Carter argues that people haven’t suddenly stopped using technology following the NSA mass-surveillance revelations.

“They have a right to be concerned, but when we get there, people will love it… Technology adoption is going faster than ever before,” Carter said.

“Whoever Snowden was, whatever his intent, it was the most perfect test. If we let everyone know that all their communications are being tracked and there’s nothing they can do about it, will they stop? And they didn’t,” he added.

Smart cities are already an inevitability, then. It just becomes a question of how soon before we are all living in them. Welcome to the future, where there’s nowhere left to hide.

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