When we think of computer networks, we think of routers and servers and fiber optic cables and laptops and smartphones — we think of the internet. In actuality, though, the visible internet is just the tip of the iceberg. There are secret military networks, and ad hoc wireless networks, and utility companies have sprawling, cellular networks the track everything from the health of oil pipelines and uranium enrichment machines through to the remaining capacity of septic tanks.
Emergency services have their own closed networks, public transport ticketing machines are all networked together, and of course traffic signals and cameras are all networked up. Meteorological agencies have huge networks of weather beacons. Most large buildings (and cities) have sprawling networks of CCTV cameras. And, in the case of large retailers, even individual stock items are networked using NFC (RFID).
At the moment, almost all of these networks are completely disconnected — but what if we connected them all to the internet? What if we extended the internet so that it wasn’t only populated by humans? What if we made an internet of things?
Imagine if everything in the world was connected up to the same network? Every computer, every loaf of bread, every car, every traffic signal, every human. Imagine the possibilities of combining and correlating that data. Before you set off in the morning, you could see the exact, real-time traffic on your smartphone — and you would know what the weather (and air quality) is like at your office/campus. From home, you would know the exact stock levels of your nearest supermarket and the price of gas.
In short, our efficiency would improve dramatically. Instead of having to drive somewhere or phone someone up, every piece of data has already been collected, transmitted at the speed of light, and stored in a massive database that can be accessed from anywhere.
The internet of things wouldn’t only be used by humans, either — things could communicate with each other. For example, your car could communicate with other cars and traffic signals, so that the light always turns green just as you arrive — or, really, with fully autonomous and networked cars, you wouldn’t need signals at all; cars would just automagically avoid each other by braking and accelerating at the right time. Fridges could communicate with supermarkets and arrange food deliveries; ditto natural gas and oil and septic tanks. With an internet of things, we could tack the word “smart” onto almost everything; smart cars, smart homes, smart supermarkets, and even smart cities.
Of course, creating the network that would underpin these smart devices and cities would be a monumental undertaking, but — perhaps unsurprisingly — companies like IBM and Cisco are already working on such systems.
For nearly two years, Rio de Janeiro’s utilities, traffic systems, and emergency services has been managed by a single “Ops Center,” a huge hub of technologies provided by both IBM and Cisco. With 300 LCD screens spread across 100 rooms, connected via 30,000 meters of fiber optic cable, Ops Center staff monitor live video from 450 cameras and three helicopters, and track the location of 10,000 buses and ambulances via GPS. Other screens output the current weather, and simulations of tomorrow’s weather up to 150 miles from the city — and yet more screens display heatmaps of disease outbreaks, and the probability of natural disasters like landslides. There’s even a Crisis Room, which links the Ops Center to Rio’s mayor and Civil Defense departments via a Cisco telepresence suite.
All told, no less than 70 heads of city departments work at the Ops Center, spanning the gamut from education and energy to housing, tourism, and the health system. This massive concentration of data and authority means that the Ops Center can respond very quickly to almost any eventuality.
Rio isn’t a smart city per se — only some of the information gathered by the Ops Center is publicly visible, and it’s still human-controlled — but automation is surely the next step. With automation, factories could be forced to automatically scale back their output if there are air quality concerns, or robots could automatically spread salt on the roads if snow is due. Taxi cabs could be automatically dispatched to the busiest parts of the city. Lanes on roads and temporary traffic signals could be automatically reassigned, depending on the real-time flow of vehicles.
This all sounds awesome — but have you spotted the flaw in the plan? In such a smart city, the control systems would all be programmed, installed, and managed by IBM and Cisco. These private companies would have huge, billion-dollar contracts to manage the biggest cities in the world. When Ops Centers around the world are eventually automated, IBM’s software will effectively become your digital mayor — or tyrant.
This isn’t to say that IBM wouldn’t be a benevolent tyrant, but we’re talking about a computer company — not an urban planner. IBM’s Watson might excel at big data analysis for tasks such aswinning Jeopardy or medical diagnosis, but these are well known, absolute domains — managing a city is something else entirely. A city has billions of variables, and millions of those are highly volatile humans prone to all sorts of crazy stuff. Does it really make sense to have computers making decisions that will affect these people’s lives, instead of trained, empathetic human workers?
Another issue is that IBM would become a de facto member of the government. After all, politicians might tell IBM how they want a city to be run, but it’s IBM’s implementation that ultimately matters. A new law might decree that smart cars traveling in smart cities must be limited to 30 mph — but what if IBM disagrees, or says the system doesn’t have that capability, or simply takes six months to implement the change?
That’s the inherent problem of automation: Once you replace a skilled worker with a computer-controlled robot, it’s very hard to go back. When we finally have smart, autonomous cars, how long do you think it’ll be before driving tests (and steering wheels) are removed? Ditto smart cities — once you remove traffic cops, weather forecasters, and a whole bevy of various civic experts, how can you possibly go back? Within a generation or two, those roles simply won’t exist — you’ll need a computer to manage your city; there won’t be any other option. From that point on, IBM’s tentacles would be inextricably linked to the running (and continued health) of society — awesome for Big Blue and its share holders, but perhaps not so good for everyone else.