Tag Archives: city

#434324 Big Brother Nation: The Case for ...

Powerful surveillance cameras have crept into public spaces. We are filmed and photographed hundreds of times a day. To further raise the stakes, the resulting video footage is fed to new forms of artificial intelligence software that can recognize faces in real time, read license plates, even instantly detect when a particular pre-defined action or activity takes place in front of a camera.

As most modern cities have quietly become surveillance cities, the law has been slow to catch up. While we wait for robust legal frameworks to emerge, the best way to protect our civil liberties right now is to fight technology with technology. All cities should place local surveillance video into a public cloud-based data trust. Here’s how it would work.

In Public Data We Trust
To democratize surveillance, every city should implement three simple rules. First, anyone who aims a camera at public space must upload that day’s haul of raw video file (and associated camera meta-data) into a cloud-based repository. Second, this cloud-based repository must have open APIs and a publicly-accessible log file that records search histories and tracks who has accessed which video files. And third, everyone in the city should be given the same level of access rights to the stored video data—no exceptions.

This kind of public data repository is called a “data trust.” Public data trusts are not just wishful thinking. Different types of trusts are already in successful use in Estonia and Barcelona, and have been proposed as the best way to store and manage the urban data that will be generated by Alphabet’s planned Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.

It’s true that few people relish the thought of public video footage of themselves being looked at by strangers and friends, by ex-spouses, potential employers, divorce attorneys, and future romantic prospects. In fact, when I propose this notion when I give talks about smart cities, most people recoil in horror. Some turn red in the face and jeer at my naiveté. Others merely blink quietly in consternation.

The reason we should take this giant step towards extreme transparency is to combat the secrecy that surrounds surveillance. Openness is a powerful antidote to oppression. Edward Snowden summed it up well when he said, “Surveillance is not about public safety, it’s about power. It’s about control.”

Let Us Watch Those Watching Us
If public surveillance video were put back into the hands of the people, citizens could watch their government as it watches them. Right now, government cameras are controlled by the state. Camera locations are kept secret, and only the agencies that control the cameras get to see the footage they generate.

Because of these information asymmetries, civilians have no insight into the size and shape of the modern urban surveillance infrastructure that surrounds us, nor the uses (or abuses) of the video footage it spawns. For example, there is no swift and efficient mechanism to request a copy of video footage from the cameras that dot our downtown. Nor can we ask our city’s police force to show us a map that documents local traffic camera locations.

By exposing all public surveillance videos to the public gaze, cities could give regular people tools to assess the size, shape, and density of their local surveillance infrastructure and neighborhood “digital dragnet.” Using the meta-data that’s wrapped around video footage, citizens could geo-locate individual cameras onto a digital map to generate surveillance “heat maps.” This way people could assess whether their city’s camera density was higher in certain zip codes, or in neighborhoods populated by a dominant ethnic group.

Surveillance heat maps could be used to document which government agencies were refusing to upload their video files, or which neighborhoods were not under surveillance. Given what we already know today about the correlation between camera density, income, and social status, these “dark” camera-free regions would likely be those located near government agencies and in more affluent parts of a city.

Extreme transparency would democratize surveillance. Every city’s data trust would keep a publicly-accessible log of who’s searching for what, and whom. People could use their local data trust’s search history to check whether anyone was searching for their name, face, or license plate. As a result, clandestine spying on—and stalking of—particular individuals would become difficult to hide and simpler to prove.

Protect the Vulnerable and Exonerate the Falsely Accused
Not all surveillance video automatically works against the underdog. As the bungled (and consequently no longer secret) assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated, one of the unexpected upsides of surveillance cameras has been the fact that even kings become accountable for their crimes. If opened up to the public, surveillance cameras could serve as witnesses to justice.

Video evidence has the power to protect vulnerable individuals and social groups by shedding light onto messy, unreliable (and frequently conflicting) human narratives of who did what to whom, and why. With access to a data trust, a person falsely accused of a crime could prove their innocence. By searching for their own face in video footage or downloading time/date stamped footage from a particular camera, a potential suspect could document their physical absence from the scene of a crime—no lengthy police investigation or high-priced attorney needed.

Given Enough Eyeballs, All Crimes Are Shallow
Placing public surveillance video into a public trust could make cities safer and would streamline routine police work. Linus Torvalds, the developer of open-source operating system Linux, famously observed that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In the case of public cameras and a common data repository, Torvald’s Law could be restated as “given enough eyeballs, all crimes are shallow.”

If thousands of citizen eyeballs were given access to a city’s public surveillance videos, local police forces could crowdsource the work of solving crimes and searching for missing persons. Unfortunately, at the present time, cities are unable to wring any social benefit from video footage of public spaces. The most formidable barrier is not government-imposed secrecy, but the fact that as cameras and computers have grown cheaper, a large and fast-growing “mom and pop” surveillance state has taken over most of the filming of public spaces.

While we fear spooky government surveillance, the reality is that we’re much more likely to be filmed by security cameras owned by shopkeepers, landlords, medical offices, hotels, homeowners, and schools. These businesses, organizations, and individuals install cameras in public areas for practical reasons—to reduce their insurance costs, to prevent lawsuits, or to combat shoplifting. In the absence of regulations governing their use, private camera owners store video footage in a wide variety of locations, for varying retention periods.

The unfortunate (and unintended) result of this informal and decentralized network of public surveillance is that video files are not easy to access, even for police officers on official business. After a crime or terrorist attack occurs, local police (or attorneys armed with a subpoena) go from door to door to manually collect video evidence. Once they have the videos in hand, their next challenge is searching for the right “codex” to crack the dozens of different file formats they encounter so they can watch and analyze the footage.

The result of these practical barriers is that as it stands today, only people with considerable legal or political clout are able to successfully gain access into a city’s privately-owned, ad-hoc collections of public surveillance videos. Not only are cities missing the opportunity to streamline routine evidence-gathering police work, they’re missing a radically transformative benefit that would become possible once video footage from thousands of different security cameras were pooled into a single repository: the ability to apply the power of citizen eyeballs to the work of improving public safety.

Why We Need Extreme Transparency
When regular people can’t access their own surveillance videos, there can be no data justice. While we wait for the law to catch up with the reality of modern urban life, citizens and city governments should use technology to address the problem that lies at the heart of surveillance: a power imbalance between those who control the cameras and those who don’t.

Cities should permit individuals and organizations to install and deploy as many public-facing cameras as they wish, but with the mandate that camera owners must place all resulting video footage into the mercilessly bright sunshine of an open data trust. This way, cloud computing, open APIs, and artificial intelligence software can help combat abuses of surveillance and give citizens insight into who’s filming us, where, and why.

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#433939 The Promise—and Complications—of ...

Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”

This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.

The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.

It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.

Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.

Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.

Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.

The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.

It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.

Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.

The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.

In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.

Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.

Domestic Bliss?
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.

That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.

Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.

It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.

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#433754 This Robotic Warehouse Fills Orders in ...

Shopping is becoming less and less of a consumer experience—or, for many, less of a chore—as the list of things that can be bought online and delivered to our homes grows to include, well, almost anything you can think of. An Israeli startup is working to make shopping and deliveries even faster and cheaper—and they’re succeeding.

Last week, CommonSense Robotics announced the launch of its first autonomous micro-fulfillment center in Tel Aviv. The company claims the facility is the smallest of its type in the world at 6,000 square feet. For comparison’s sake—most fulfillment hubs that incorporate robotics are at least 120,000 square feet. Amazon’s upcoming facility in Bessemer, Alabama will be a massive 855,000 square feet.

The thing about a building whose square footage is in the hundred-thousands is, you can fit a lot of stuff inside it, but there aren’t many places you can fit the building itself, especially not in major urban areas. So most fulfillment centers are outside cities, which means more time and more money to get your Moroccan oil shampoo, or your vegetable garden starter kit, or your 100-pack of organic protein bars from that fulfillment center to your front door.

CommonSense Robotics built the Tel Aviv center in an area that was previously thought too small for warehouse infrastructure. “In order to fit our site into small, tight urban spaces, we’ve designed every single element of it to optimize for space efficiency,” said Avital Sterngold, VP of operations. Using a robotic sorting system that includes hundreds of robots, plus AI software that assigns them specific tasks, the facility can prepare orders in less than five minutes end-to-end.

It’s not all automated, though—there’s still some human labor in the mix. The robots fetch goods and bring them to a team of people, who then pack the individual orders.

CommonSense raised $20 million this year in a funding round led by Palo Alto-based Playground Global. The company hopes to expand its operations to the US and UK in 2019. Its business model is to charge retailers a fee for each order fulfilled, while maintaining ownership and operation of the fulfillment centers. The first retailers to jump on the bandwagon were Super-Pharm, a drugstore chain, and Rami Levy, a retail supermarket chain.

“Staying competitive in today’s market is anchored by delivering orders quickly and determining how to fulfill and deliver orders efficiently, which are always the most complex aspects of any ecommerce operation. With robotics, we will be able to fulfill and deliver orders in under one hour, all while saving costs on said fulfillment and delivery,” said Super-Pharm VP Yossi Cohen. “Before CommonSense Robotics, we offered our customers next-day home delivery. With this partnership, we are now able to offer our customers same-day delivery and will very soon be offering them one-hour delivery.”

Long live the instant gratification economy—and the increasingly sophisticated technology that’s enabling it.

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#433739 No Safety Driver Here—Volvo’s New ...

Each time there’s a headline about driverless trucking technology, another piece is taken out of the old equation. First, an Uber/Otto truck’s safety driver went hands-off once the truck reached the highway (and said truck successfully delivered its valuable cargo of 50,000 beers). Then, Starsky Robotics announced its trucks would start making autonomous deliveries without a human in the vehicle at all.

Now, Volvo has taken the tech one step further. Its new trucks not only won’t have safety drivers, they won’t even have the option of putting safety drivers behind the wheel, because there is no wheel—and no cab, either.

Vera, as the technology’s been dubbed, was unveiled in September, and consists of a sort of flat-Tesla-like electric car with a standard trailer hookup. The vehicles are connected to a cloud service, which also connects them to each other and to a control center. The control center monitors the trucks’ positioning (they’re designed to locate their position to within centimeters), battery charge, load content, service requirements, and other variables. The driveline and battery pack used in the cars are the same as those Volvo uses in its existing electric trucks.

You won’t see these cruising down an interstate highway, though, or even down a local highway. Vera trucks are designed to be used on short, repetitive routes contained within limited areas—think shipping ports, industrial parks, or logistics hubs. They’re limited to slower speeds than normal cars or trucks, and will be able to operate 24/7. “We will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity,” said Mikael Karlsson, VP of Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimize stock piles and increase overall productivity.”

The trucks are sort of like bigger versions of Amazon’s Kiva robots, which scoot around the aisles of warehouses and fulfillment centers moving pallets between shelves and fetching goods to be shipped.

Pairing trucks like Vera with robots like Kiva makes for a fascinating future landscape of logistics and transport; cargo will be moved from docks to warehouses by a large, flat robot-on-wheels, then distributed throughout that warehouse by smaller, flat robots-on-wheels. To really see the automated process through to the end point, even smaller flat robots-on-wheels will be used to deliver peoples’ goods right to their front doors.

Sounds like a lot of robots and not a lot of humans, right? Anticipating its technology’s implication in the ongoing uproar over technological unemployment, Volvo has already made statements about its intentions to continue to employ humans alongside the driverless trucks. “I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications,” said Karlsson.

The end-to-end automation concept has already been put into practice in Caofeidian, a northern Chinese city that houses the world’s first fully autonomous harbor, aiming to be operational by the end of this year. Besides replacing human-driven trucks with autonomous ones (made by Chinese startup TuSimple), the port is using automated cranes and a coordinating central control system.

Besides Uber/Otto, Tesla, or Daimler, which are all working on driverless trucks with a more conventional design (meaning they still have a cab and look like you’d expect a truck to look), Volvo also has competition from a company called Einride. The Swedish startup’s electric, cabless T/Pod looks a lot like Vera, but has some fundamental differences. Rather than being tailored to short distances and high capacity, Einride’s trucks are meant for medium distance and capacity, like moving goods from a distribution center to a series of local stores.

Vera trucks are currently still in the development phase. But since their intended use is quite specific and limited (Karlsson noted “Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere”), the technology could likely be rolled out faster than its more general-use counterparts. Having cabless electric trucks take over short routes in closed environments would be one more baby step along the road to a driverless future—and a testament to the fact that self-driving technology will move into our lives and our jobs incrementally, ostensibly giving us the time we’ll need to adapt and adjust.

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#433486 This AI Predicts Obesity ...

A research team at the University of Washington has trained an artificial intelligence system to spot obesity—all the way from space. The system used a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyze 150,000 satellite images and look for correlations between the physical makeup of a neighborhood and the prevalence of obesity.

The team’s results, presented in JAMA Network Open, showed that features of a given neighborhood could explain close to two-thirds (64.8 percent) of the variance in obesity. Researchers found that analyzing satellite data could help increase understanding of the link between peoples’ environment and obesity prevalence. The next step would be to make corresponding structural changes in the way neighborhoods are built to encourage physical activity and better health.

Training AI to Spot Obesity
Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are particularly adept at image analysis, object recognition, and identifying special hierarchies in large datasets.

Prior to analyzing 150,000 high-resolution satellite images of Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Memphis, and San Antonio, the researchers trained the CNN on 1.2 million images from the ImageNet database. The categorizations were correlated with obesity prevalence estimates for the six urban areas from census tracts gathered by the 500 Cities project.

The system was able to identify the presence of certain features that increased likelihood of obesity in a given area. Some of these features included tightly–packed houses, being close to roadways, and living in neighborhoods with a lack of greenery.

Visualization of features identified by the convolutional neural network (CNN) model. The images on the left column are satellite images taken from Google Static Maps API (application programming interface). Images in the middle and right columns are activation maps taken from the second convolutional layer of VGG-CNN-F network after forward pass of the respective satellite images through the network. From Google Static Maps API, DigitalGlobe, US Geological Survey (accessed July 2017). Credit: JAMA Network Open
Your Surroundings Are Key
In their discussion of the findings, the researchers stressed that there are limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn from the AI’s results. For example, socio-economic factors like income likely play a major role for obesity prevalence in a given geographic area.

However, the study concluded that the AI-powered analysis showed the prevalence of specific man-made features in neighborhoods consistently correlating with obesity prevalence and not necessarily correlating with socioeconomic status.

The system’s success rates varied between studied cities, with Memphis being the highest (73.3 percent) and Seattle being the lowest (55.8 percent).

AI Takes To the Sky
Around a third of the US population is categorized as obese. Obesity is linked to a number of health-related issues, and the AI-generated results could potentially help improve city planning and better target campaigns to limit obesity.

The study is one of the latest of a growing list that uses AI to analyze images and extrapolate insights.

A team at Stanford University has used a CNN to predict poverty via satellite imagery, assisting governments and NGOs to better target their efforts. A combination of the public Automatic Identification System for shipping, satellite imagery, and Google’s AI has proven able to identify illegal fishing activity. Researchers have even been able to use AI and Google Street View to predict what party a given city will vote for, based on what cars are parked on the streets.

In each case, the AI systems have been able to look at volumes of data about our world and surroundings that are beyond the capabilities of humans and extrapolate new insights. If one were to moralize about the good and bad sides of AI (new opportunities vs. potential job losses, for example) it could seem that it comes down to what we ask AI systems to look at—and what questions we ask of them.

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