Urban traffic directed with the aid of Artificial Intelligence? This science fiction scenario is actually starting to become hard reality thanks to a programme developed by online shopping giant Alibaba, widely regarded as the Chinese Amazon, which is now up and running in the city of Hangzhou. Entitled City Brain, the system draws on vast quantities of mobility data provided by the public authorities, navigation apps and surveillance cameras. The data is then processed with the help of Artificial Intelligence algorithms so as to optimise the way the city traffic lights operate, streamline traffic flows and also spot illegally-parked vehicles and road accidents and enable the emergency services to deploy more rapidly. City Brain was first introduced as a pilot project in one of the Hangzhou city districts, where it helped to reduce traffic jams by 15%, and was later extended to the entire municipal area. Now the system is set to be exported to Kuala Lumpur. Nowadays public authorities all over the world are increasingly drawing on mobility data processing to optimise the way cities work. However, these experiments are very often carried out in partnership with private enterprises, which raises confidentiality issues regarding the public data used. With this in mind, the New York City Council passed local legislation requiring the algorithms used to underpin public authority decisions to be tested for bias. So will we soon see other local authorities following suit?
By Guillaume Renouard