AI in Smart Cities: Privacy, Trust and Ethics

When we think about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a smart city context, one of the primary issues that come up are around the privacy of citizens. But there are quite a number of other issues that can arise, especially around the areas of fairness, safety, bias and transparency. In this article I will explore some of the tangible possibilities where AI-enabled solutions can trigger adverse outcomes with a lack of due process and awareness to be able to address them.


Technology has always brought about societal changes. Why is it then that, this time around with AI, these issues become more relevant? This wave of automation is driven by a replacement of decision-making based on observed patterns whereas previous automation waves relied heavily on pre-programmed rules with a defined output possibility space. In a learning system that defines these “rules” as it analyzes patterns, there is a distinct possibility of unintended outcomes. The other thing that makes a deeper investigation pertinent is the rapid pace and pervasiveness with which A.I. solutions are being developed and deployed.

Predictive or automated policing enabled by smart sensors deployed across the city is something that sounds like a scene right out of Minority Report yet this is something that is already taking place at a prototypical stage in cities in China. In Chinese cities, law enforcement officers are equipped with tools that, when combined with mass surveillance powering facial recognition, give them the ability to bring up your entire public record with the blink of an eye. This is not only a case of intrusion of privacy but also a scenario that will hamper free movement of residents and change their interaction with the urban landscape. One of the key questions one needs to answer is how might we use such solutions to heighten security while still protecting citizens’ rights?

Internet of Things (IoT) sensors are growing in prevalence enabling things like real-time monitoring of air, water and soil quality. In addition, such devices can also be used to assess road conditions (e.g. presence of potholes) and conditions of community parks (e.g. via proxies of monitoring unwanted plant growth, park visits, etc.). There is no doubt that these devices present a great opportunity for city officials to provide anticipatory governance – taking actions to address potential problems with city infrastructure before they even arise!


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