A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jun 23, 2019

How Alibaba's AI 'City Brain' System Controls Hangzhou, China's Traffic

The AI can detect every car in the city, making adjustments to traffic lights and other signals as its machine-learning updated data prescribes.

It may be too Orwellian for some societies but that may change as urban congestion worsens. JL

Abigail Beall reports in Wired:

Alibaba’s City Brain project, which started out in the city of Hangzhou is soon to expand to Kuala Lumpur. The aim is to create a cloud-based system where information about a city, and as a result everyone in it, is stored and used to control the city. City Brain works by letting artificial intelligence (AI) control large amounts of data (which) are gathered, processed by algorithms in supercomputers, then feed it back into systems around the city. Alibaba was given control of 104 traffic light junctions. As a result, speed was increased by 15% during the first year of operation. Alibaba provides the software, but the city owns the data.
In the future, our cities could be controlled by artificial intelligence. At least, this is what Chinese retail giant Alibaba is hoping.
Getting around is becoming easier, thanks to the hordes of data produced by each of us every day. When you share your location with Google Maps, for example, the application uses that data in real-time to monitor the traffic flow, which it then feeds back to its users about the best route to take.
It may be difficult to imagine a future where every city is smart, where all of the infrastructure is linked to some kind of software, but it’s happening. And nowhere is that more the case than in China.
Alibaba’s City Brain project, which started out in the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, is soon to expand to Kuala Lumpur. The aim? To create a cloud-based system where information about a city, and as a result everyone in it, is stored and used to control the city.
City Brain works by letting artificial intelligence (AI) control a city. Large amounts of data are gathered, processed by algorithms in supercomputers, then feed it back into systems around the city.
Alibaba Cloud provides the software, but the city owns the data.
The project in Hangzhou started out looking at the issue of traffic. In 2015, Hangzhou ranked fifth in China and 30th globally in navigation firm TomTom’s global congestion rankings. The government wanted to reduce this, so collaborated with Alibaba and its cloud-computing platform.
City Brain in Hangzhou began by monitoring traffic, using data from the transportation bureau, public transportation systems, a mapping app and hundreds of thousands of cameras. Alibaba was given control of 104 traffic light junctions in the city’s Xiaoshan district, and as a result traffic speed in the district was increased by 15 per cent during the first year of operation, the company says. Not only this, but road accidents are now automatically detected so can be responded to faster, and illegal parking is tracked live.
After this success, the City Brain was rolled out to the rest of the city of Hangzhou in 2017. The system also constantly monitors video footage of traffic, looking out for signs of collisions or accidents in order to alert the police.
Next stop: Kuala Lumpur.
“We see Malaysia as a country with huge potential for adopting cloud computing, AI and big data technologies given its fast speed of digital transformation and its demand from public and private sector,” says Wanli Min, a machine learning researcher at Alibaba Cloud.
Much like in Hangzhou, the Malaysia City Brain project will start on the traffic. “Enormous amounts of transportation data will be collected from a diversity of sources in urban spaces owned by the city and fed into the Malaysia City Brain,” Min says. “In the future, the Malaysia City Brain will be an open innovation platform for Malaysian enterprises, startups, research institutions."
Alibaba hopes to work with small companies to sell its data-gathering and machine learning resources. Exactly how that will play out remains to be seen, but the company is already working with 120,000 developers and 2,700 academic institutes and businesses from 77 countries and regions in a project called Tianchi.
And with Alibaba’s city data grab come concerns about privacy and surveillance. "The implications are huge," says Gemma Galdon Clavell, a social scientist working on the ethics of technology. "There will be no oversight nor control not only of stated uses but also future uses." She says the usefulness for citizens, in the way of improved services is not clear, but it is clear it will be valuable for profiling and commercial activities.
“What is sold as public or safety initiative ends up using public infrastructure and the public to mine data for private uses,” she says. “We’d need to see contracts to assess this, but in my experience cities just give away everything to private contractors and don’t protect data or public return in contracts.”
Clavell argues this kind of project has the potential for huge breaches in data, and the trend is moving towards a worrying dependence on centralised systems that can fail or be hacked. “We have seen viruses like WannaCry affecting human lives, like hospitals shutting down after a massive breach.”
And while the project remains in its infancy, Alibaba has not ruled out further expanding it to other cities around the world. “Every city has the potential of becoming a smart city as long as its data resource can be fully activated by City Brain,” says Min.
But Clavell does not see this happening any time soon. “The technology is not there yet,” she says. “Facial recognition in crowds does not work and massive data mining for emergency response, for instance, has been found to create more problems – like the spread of rumours, lies and generally noise that can’t be handled. Emergency responders go back to traditional methods despite having the technology.” But Alibaba is making a bet that the technology – and the people using it – will catch up fast.
“In China, people have less concern with privacy, which allows us to move faster,” Xian-Sheng Hua, who manages AI at Alibaba, said at World Summit AI in 2017. Success for City Brain in Kuala Lumpur could just be the start.

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