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City Brain: Cloud Computing and Data Technology Help Our City Think Deeply

It takes HUMAN 100 years to process these data. It takes TECHNOLOGY one second to make our city a better place.

On November 9, 2017, Dr. Wang Jian, Chairman of Alibaba Group’s Technology Committee, published an article in China’s mainstream media on the “City Brain”. In it, he explains that in the future, data resources will be more important than land resources in the field of urban development through the creation of ‘City Brains’. The following is a revised excerpt of that article.
Dr. Wang Jian on City Brain during the 2017 Computing Conference in Hangzhou

The Internet was a revolutionary technology that changed the world. However, we are now entering a new technological era that some are saying will be the ‘death of the Internet’. And that new era is being born through AI. However, AI will not be the death of the Internet, because it is the large amounts of data created by the Internet that is spurring the rapid development of AI and its ability to help us.

When artificial intelligence was first proposed in the 1950s, scientists struggled to make computers successfully simulate human intelligence. However, with the power of the Internet and computing technology today, we have not only been able to simulate human intelligence but are well on our way to creating a whole new kind of intelligence. Now, using the vast amounts of data created daily, we are able to use computers to solve problems that cannot be solved by human intelligence alone. Just as in the past when humans used tools and machines to build things where human physical strength was lacking, we are now starting to use the intelligence of machines where our intelligence is lacking. In this way, it may be more accurate to refer to artificial intelligence as machine intelligence. It is not so much artificial ‘human’ intelligence, but a different kind of intelligence altogether. And this makes it very powerful.

Today, many cities around the world face issues to do with sustainable development. Without further breakthroughs in technological innovation, cities will all face even greater challenges going forward. So, to tackle these challenges, machine intelligence, fueled by data from the internet, is being utilized to solve many urban development issues, such as solutions to traffic management. This is a golden opportunity for a new generation of technologies surrounding machine intelligence to mature and for the rate at which smart industries are developing to increase. And this situation is where the creation of ‘City Brains’ began.

In the past 20 years, China has continuously invested in the development of urban informatization. In particular, the public security and traffic police departments have always been at the forefront of data accumulation. But without the help of machine intelligence there has always been limitations in the use of these data. For example, the amount of video recorded by traffic cameras in a single city in one day would take a single human over 100 years to watch, which means most of these data is either deleted or stored, never to be used.

When I first heard this statistic, I felt like the farthest distance in the world was not from Antarctica to the North Pole, but from traffic lights to traffic cameras. They are both on the same pole but they do not share data, meaning that traffic operations cannot be optimized using the traffic information recorded by cameras. This is a clear waste of urban data resources and increases the cost of urban operations and development. It was in answer to situations like this that on the Computing Conference in Hangzhou last year, the world’s first City Brain was announced to be in operation, in the same city.

A City Brain will utilize the Internet as its infrastructure and make use of the wealth of urban data being recorded every second to make global real-time analyses of cities. This means that cities will be able to effectively leverage urban data to allocate public resources, constantly improve social governance, and promote sustainable urban development. It is in this way that in the future, urban data resources will be more important than land resources in urban development. This idea is the driving force behind the development of the City Brains.

In Hangzhou (where Alibaba’s headquarters is located; population: 8.1 million), the City Brain receives instant traffic flow information from the city’s video cameras. For the first time, the city’s traffic lights have optimized the time distribution of intersections to improve traffic efficiency based on real-time traffic. The City Brain utilizes each traffic camera on the road for instant traffic analysis, just like having traffic police patrolling every junction, all year round, controlling the lights.

In October this year, at the Cloud Conscious General Assembly, data from the past years operation of Hangzhou’s City Brain was shared. It showed that the optimization of time distribution for the 128 junctions connected to traffic data reduced the overall passage time by 15.3%. Also, in the center of the city, the automatic alarm for criminal activity was raised 500 times daily, with an accuracy rate of 92%, greatly improving the direction of law enforcement. Currently, the Hangzhou traffic police division is using the City Brain to optimize traffic lights in the main metropolitan area and provide immediate dispatching decisions.

In addition, Hangzhou’s Xiaoshan District was able to give priority to special vehicles, including over 120 ambulances. Once an emergency call had been received, the City Brain automatically optimized a traffic light route from the ambulance to the accident, using traffic data, while still reducing the impact on other traffic. On average, this cut ambulance arrival time in half.

Traffic control is only the beginning. Data is starting to solve many urban development problems that cannot be solved by the humans. Just as it was difficult to build things before the invention of mechanical equipment, it is currently very difficult to optimize urban development without AI’s help. There are 3 major ways that City Brains will assist us.

Firstly, there will be a breakthrough in urban governance. Using urban data, including that of social structure, social environment, and social activities, we can determine how to best utilize physical resources and solve outstanding problems facing different cities, achieving an innovative and humanized governance modal.

Secondly, there will be a breakthrough in urban services. City Brain will become the most important tool we have to improve the lives of the public. Using City Brain, enterprises and individuals will be served more accurately and efficiently. For example, public services, such as transportation, will enter an era of perfectly balanced and efficient.

Thirdly, there will be a breakthrough in urban industrial development. Urban data will become the foundation of the transformation of traditional industries and the development of new industries, just as the invention of the semiconductor was the foundation of the development of the computer industry.

For example, in Suzhou (60 miles west to Shanghai; population: 10.6 million), it has recently been decided that there will be a focus on traffic management using the City Brain framework. The public security department will pilot the joining of the transportation, tourism, rail transportation, and the city appearance and municipal administration departments to bring massive amounts of data together from different sources to be analyzed by the City’s Brain s to help the city operate efficiently and safely. As urban brain systems expand into all areas of social governance, Suzhou will have the opportunity to become a model for the successful harnessing of value from urban data resources for urban governance, social governance, and industrial governance.

Today, no other country in the world is treating City Brain as a necessity. City Brain first appeared in China thanks to China’s well-developed Internet infrastructure and China’s willingness to quickly adopt new technology, as can be seen in China’s widespread use of mobile payments. This difference has given China a competitive edge in the City Brain field. The accumulation of urban data in China will be faster than that in any other country in the world. This gives China an important opportunity to solve the problems of urban development in a more advanced way than other countries.

City Brain is not only of great significance for the development of China’s cities, but also provides a huge platform for the development of China’s technological innovation. With unprecedented computing power and data resources, City Brain will not only benefit people but also become the most important research platform for machine intelligence for the next 10 years.

Ten years ago, Alibaba was the first to invest in cloud computing research and development with the goal of enabling young people to possess the computing power of multinational giants. Now, City Brains will also give people advantages in the upcoming era of global intelligence.

Every technological revolution carries urban civilization a step forward. In the steam engine era, cities developed roads and railways; in the electricity era, cities developed lights and power grids. Now, in the Internet age, City Brains will once again elevate civilization. Like the first subway construction in London 160 years ago and Manhattan’s first power grid construction 135 years ago, City Brains will become a brand-new part of urban infrastructure and an important step forward that China will give to the world.

Help Our City Think Deeply: City Brain

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