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The artificial intelligence (AI) world summit took place in Singapore on 3 and 4 October 2017 (The AI summit Singapore). If we follow this global trend of heavy emphasis on AI, we can note the convergence between artificial intelligence and the emergence of “smart cities” in Asia, especially in China (Imran Khan, “Asia is leading the “Smart city” charge, but we’re not there yet”, TechinAsia, January 19 2016). The development of artificial intelligence indeed combines with the current urbanization of the Chinese population.
This “intelligentization” of smart cities in China is induced by the necessity to master urban growth, while adapting urban areas to the emerging energy, water, food, health challenges, through the treatment of big data by artificial intelligence (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China: Towards the digital ecological revolution?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, October 22, 2017). Reciprocally, the smart urban development is a powerful driver, among others, of the development of artificial intelligence (Linda Poon, “What artificial intelligence reveals about urban change?” City Lab, July 13, 2017).
In this article, we shall thus focus upon the combination of artificial intelligence and cities that indeed creates the so-called “smart cities” in China. After having presented how this combination looks like through Chinese examples, we shall explain how this trend is implemented. Finally, we shall see how the development of artificial intelligence within the latest generations of smart cities is disrupting geopolitics through the combination of industry and intelligentization.
Artificial intelligence and smart cities
In China, the urban revolution induced by the acceleration of rural exodus is entwined with the digital and artificial intelligence revolution. This can be seen through the national program of urban development that is transforming “small” (3 million people) and middle size cities (5 million people) into smart cities. The new 95 Chinese smart cities are meant to shelter the coming 250 millions people expected to relocate into towns between the end of 2017 and 2026 (Chris Weller, “Here’s China’s genius plan to move 250 millions people from farms to cities”, Business Insider, 5 August 2015). However, these 95 cities are part of the 500 smart cities that are expected to be developed before the end of 2017 (“Chinese “smart cities” to number 500 before end of 2017“, China Daily, 21-04-2017).
In order to manage the mammoth challenges of these huge cities, artificial intelligence is on the rise. Deep learning is notably the type of AI that is used to make these cities smart. Deep learning is both able to treat the massive flow of data generated by cities and made possible by the exponentially growing flows of these big data – as these very data allow the AI to learn by themselves, through the creation, among other things, of the codes needed to apprehend new kinds of data and issues (Michael Copeland, “What’s the difference between AI, machine learning and deep learning?”, NVIDIA Blog, July 29, 2016).
For example, since 2016, the Hangzhou municipal government has integrated artificial intelligence, notably with “city brain”, which helps improving traffic efficiency through the use of the big data streams generated by a myriad of captors and cameras. The “city brain” project is led the giant technology company Alibaba. This “intelligentization” of traffic management helps reduce traffic jam, improves street surveillance, as well as air pollution for the 9 millions residents of Hangzhou. However, it is only the first step before turning the city into an intelligent and sustainable smart city (Du Yifei, “Hangzhou growing “smarter” thanks to AI technology”, People’s Daily, October 20, 2017).
Through the developing internet of things (IoT), the convergence of “intelligent” infrastructures, of big data management, and of urban artificial intelligence is going to be increasingly important to improve traffic, and thus energy efficiency, air pollution and economic development (Sarah Hsu, “China is investing heavily into Artificial intelligence, and could soon catch up with US”, Forbes, July 3, 2017). The Hangzhou experiment is duplicated in Suzhou, Quzhou and Macao.
Meanwhile, Baidu Inc, the Chinese largest search engine, develops a partnership with the Shanxi province in order to implement “city brain”, which is dedicated to create smart cities in the northern province, while improving coal mining management and chemical treatment (“Baidu partners with Shanxi province to integrate AI with city management”, China Money Network, July 13). As a result, the AI is going to be used to alleviate the use of this energy, which is also responsible of the Chinese “airpocalypse” (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Arctic, Russia and China’s energy transition”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, February 2, 2017).
In the meantime, Tencent, another mammoth Chinese technology company, is multiplying partnerships with 14 Chinese provinces and 50 cities to develop and integrate urban artificial intelligences. In the same time, the Hong Kong government is getting ready to implement an artificial intelligence program to tackle the 21st urban challenges, chief among them urban development management and climate change impacts.
When looking closely at this development of artificial intelligence in order to support the management of Chinese cities and at the multiplication of smart cities, we notice both also coincide with the political will aimed at reducing the growth of already clogged Chinese megacities of more than ten million people – such as Beijing (21,5 millions people), Shanghai (25 millions), and the urban areas around them – and of the network of very great cities where more than 5 to 10 million people live. Indeed, the problem is that these very large cities and megalopolis have reached highly dangerous levels of water and air pollution, hence the “airpocalypse”, created by the noxious mix of car fume and coal plants exhaust.
From the intelligentization of Chinese cities to the “smart cars revolution”
This Chinese AI-centred urban development strategy also drives a gigantic urban, technological and industrial revolution, that turns China into a possible world leader in clean energy, in electric and smart cars and in urban development. The development of the new generations of smart car is thus going to be coupled with latest advances in artificial intelligence. As a result, China can position itself in the “middle” of the major trends of globalization. Indeed, smart electric cars are the “new frontier” of the car industry that supports the economy of great economic powers as such as the U.S., Japan, and Germany (Michael Klare, Blood and oil, 2005), while artificial intelligence is the new frontier of industry and the building of the future. The emergence of China as an “electric and smart cars” provider could have massive implications for the industrial and economic development of these countries.
In 2015, in the case of Shanghai, the number of cars grew by more than 13%, reaching the staggering total of 2.5 million cars in a 25 millions people strong megacity. In order to mitigate the impact of the car flow on the atmosphere, the municipal authorities use new “smart street” technologies. For example, the Ningbo-Hangzhou-Shanghai highway, daily used by more than 40 000 cars, is being equipped with a cyber network allowing drivers to pay tolls in advance with their smartphones. This application allows a significant decrease in pollution, because the lines of thousands of cars stopping in front of paybooths are reduced (“Chinese “smart cities” to number 500 before end of 2017”, China Daily, 21 April 2017).
In the meantime, the tech giant Tencent, the creator of WeChat, the enormous Chinese social network, which attracts more than 889 million users per month (“2017 WeChat Users Behavior Report”, China Channel, April 25, 2017), is developing a partnership with the Guangzhou automobile Group to develop smart cars. Baidu is doing the same with the Chinese BYD, Chery and BAIC, while launching Apollo, the open source platform on AI-powered smart cars. Alibaba, the giant of e-commerce, with more than 454 millions users during the first quarter of 2017 (“Number of active buyers across Alibaba’s online shopping properties from 2nd quarter 2012 to 1st quarter 2017 (in millions)”, Statista, The Statistical Portal, 2017) is developing a partnership with the Chinese brand SAIC motors and has already launched the Yunos System, which connects cars to the cloud and internet services. (Charles Clover and Sherry Fei Ju, “Tencent and Guangzhou team up to produce smart cars“, Financial Times, 19 september 2017).
It must be kept in mind that these three Chinese giant tech companies are thus connecting the development of their own services with artificial intelligence development, notably with smart cars development, in the context of the urban, digital and ecological transformation of China. In other terms, “city brains” and “smart cars” are going to become an immense “digital ecosystem” that artificial intelligences are going to manage, thus giving China an imposing technological edge.
This means that artificial intelligence is becoming the common support of the social and urban transformation of China, as well as the ways and means of the transformation of the Chinese urban network into smart cities. It is also a scientific, technological and industrial revolution.
This revolution is going to be based on the new international distribution of power between artificial intelligence-centred countries, and the others.
Indeed, in China, artificial intelligence is creating new social, economic and political conditions. This means that China is using artificial intelligence in order to manage its own social evolution, while becoming a mammoth artificial intelligence great power.
It now remains to be seen how the latest generations of smart cities powered by developing artificial intelligence accompanies the way some countries are getting ready for the economic, industrial and ecological, as well as security and military challenges of the 21 century, and how this urban and artificial intelligence is preparing an immense geopolitical revolution. This revolution is going to be based on the new international distribution of power between artificial intelligence-centred countries, and the others.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.