Internet of Things, AI, Smart Cities and Planned Societies

«Are we to understand,» asked the judge, «that you hold your own interests above the interests of the public?» «I hold that such a question can never arise except in a society of cannibals.»
Ayn Rand

In general I think there are two views of future, on the one end it’s a disordered “Blade Runner” style future, people self-organizing in ingenious ways (okay, with large cooperations), and a Star Trek like future on the other end (think Starfleet in TNG, highly organized).

And these are two forces battling each other.

Currently, there is a strong force to get a more planned future, given the funding of data collection (Internet of Things), making sense of the data (AI initiatives), and the application of both within smart city initiatives.

The general idea is to use all the information available about the citizens, and use this information to improve the efficiency of cities. Making them more livable, more economic, more ecologically friendly.

In principle, I think this is a good idea, but I wonder whether this will get us a kind of planned economy through the back door. A world in which the state has all the power (as information, and here applicable information, i.e. knowledge, is power). And in which the group (here: the citizens) are more important than the individual.

Just take one common example — rerouting the traffic in a city. Few, if any, people like traffic jams, and smart cities can help to prevent them. If the movement data (via traffic cams, position data from smartphone from drivers) are analyzed (solvable problem for an AI), cars can be rerouted so they don’t take the shortest route by distance, but by time.

This will avoid being stuck in the traffic jam and get you home faster.

So far so good, but is it actually the shortest route? Or the route that minimizes the average time for the cars to get to their destination?

Likely the later. And some people will likely lose out big – having to take the scenic route – without having any say in the matter. An individual may win or lose based on a decision made for the group, not for the person himself.

It is very much planned, very much predetermined. And yeah, we do have our habits, are predicable and thus solutions can be designed for us, but that approach would cement our behaviors, because we do not have any other choice.

It might still not sound so bad, but now transfer this reasoning to other areas, like medicine.

How about health decisions that are made on the aggregated efficiency of the whole system? Like during a triage when a disaster overwhelms the capabilities of the health care system.

Overall, it would be more efficient, it just would suck to be an outlier in the care-comes-later direction.

And yeah, perhaps Smart Cities will turn out differently, perhaps they will improve the efficiency for all, e.g., decrease everybody’s travel time and quality of care. But while I like the overall idea — being a fan of data-driven decisions and rational decision making — I also see the risks when that idea becomes widely implemented.

Data-driven decisions are important, and rational decisions are usually better than emotionally driven ones (just look at the political Covid19-pandemic-scared-to-make-a-mistake-fuckups), but there’s a reason why planned economies, or here: planned cities, planned societies, go hand-in-hand with dictatorships and a stagnation of creative development.

In a planned society the individual must be predictable. Must be a cog in the machine. It cannot simply do something different. It’s poison for creativity, for ingenious solutions. Because by its own standards the system runs fine and deviation from the planned behavior is made extremely difficult.

So, if everything is planned, how then can people come up with solutions that, for example, prevent traffic jams altogether, or provide better care for everyone?