While the international media is focusing a lot of attention on Huawei lately, another leading Chinese company of innovation, Alibaba is contributing back to its hometown by improving the traffic flow in Hangzhou, a city of 7 million people in population. In easing traffic flow and helping Hangzhou to be elevated to a higher rank for solving traffic woes, Alibaba is also transforming Hangzhou into a smart city. China has ambitions to create the world’s largest network of smart cities, much larger than India’s masterplan or ASEAN blueprint.
The technology that Alibaba brings to the table is known as “City Brain”, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system that absorbs information from surveillance cameras in the cities, Global Positioning System (GPS) data from vehicles and optimizes traffic conditions based on such inputs. It is also a cloud-based system, which means City Brain can handle almost infinite data storage. City Brain absorbs these data and then processes them. Storage is made possible by cloud while processing is made possible by algorithms.
Like a human “brain”, the AI can regulate traffic flows by directing traffic to the least clogged up areas. Most importantly, it can direct emergency vehicles to the shortest route possible with the least traffic resistance. This can help save lives literally. Ambulances, fire trucks, natural disaster vehicles, recovery vehicles, emergency supplies can all benefit from such faster traffic flows. Law enforcement vehicles can also be directed to the sites of emergencies that need them. This has the potential to lower crime rates and illegal incidences as well. It can detect illegal parking which is the scourge of many major urban cities in the world.
City Brain has the potential to transform any big cities into smart cities if implemented. Algorithms are at the core of this system and can compute different inputs into useful functions. It can also make dumb machines become smart devices. The use of algorithms and big data firmly classifies City Brain as an Industry 4.0 technology and it is quite likely to also be able to trawl data in the future from sensors besides traffic lights, digital maps and satellite navigational systems.
In many smart city projects, one of the main issues to tackle has always been the urban traffic conditions. Many cities in the world face devastating traffic jams. Thus, if the City Brain system can work for Hangzhou, there is potential for the system to be exported to other countries as well. Asia has the largest numbers of mega cities in the world, and there are many expanding cities in the developing world. All these mean that with its price affordability, City Brain has the potential to enter those markets.
One of the first countries to sign up to the system is Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It was implemented in 2018. If successful, Alibaba has the potential to sell the machine learning, self learning and big data collection components of the system separately to other institutional or even small and medium sized clients. There are plans to make parts of the Kuala Lumpur City Brain open to interested and law-abiding parties, like contractors and entrepreneurs. Malaysia is also one of the most advanced Islamic countries in the world and there is potential for Kuala Lumpur to become a model smart city of excellence for the Muslim world.
Malaysia has ambitions to reach developed status by 2020 (the name of the national blueprint is called Wawasan 2020). The vision of becoming a developed country is also boosted by the return of a Prime Minister (94-year-old PM Mahathir Mohamed) who kick-started this scheme in the first place. Mahathir also recently declared that Malaysia welcomed the use of Huawei equipment and systems in their 5G infrastructure. Brazil and Russia also made such statements.
Alibaba is also collaborating with Zhejiang University to open the Alibaba-Zhejiang University Joint Institute of Frontier Technologies.
Increasingly, more powerful servers and computational speeds will help traffic lights become smart and driver’s navigational systems become active collectors of big data for the traffic directors. City Brain takes data from every car that plies the road of Hangzhou. Every single car in Hangzhou is now visible to City Brain. Even Google Maps are valuable sources of data that can be used to help with traffic control and flow since it also points to the shortest route available for our individual travel.
However, there remains tremendous challenges to tackle. Tech implementers must ensure privacy of its clients, given that information and big data is increasing trawled back to the main computer system. Culturally, however, Chinese institutional clients and tech developers appear to show less concern for privacy comparatively speaking, although with individual consumers, this is likely to be an issue.
Other concerns include proliferation of false data, rumors and items that are likely to cause major panic amongst city users. There are also current limitations including erroneous identification by facial recognition. All of them will be addressed in due time as technologies improve. Procedural and policy systems must also be in place to ensure big data collected is not sold to unauthorized parties. Backup systems are necessary in case the main system fails. The need for systemic monitoring for oversights and ethical breaches should also be put in place.
In Chinese proverbs, a well-known phrase is “yinshui shiyuan” (“when drinking the water, remember the source”), thus Alibaba is showing its gratefulness to the city of Hangzhou in developing this technology. In its collaboration with Alibaba, Hangzhou has a win win situation. While Alibaba provides the technological means for managing the system, all data collected belongs to the city of Hangzhou. Data is the new oil and can be potentially profitable if commercialized and commodified legally and procedurally in any cities around the world. Big data can also be used to shore up national security issues or used constructively for shoring up national priorities.
To showcase China’s Industry 4.0 technologies, the Zhejiang provincial government has inaugurated an AI town in Hangzhou. The town is located next to Alibaba’s headquarters and indicates Hangzhou’s plan to lead the fourth industrial revolution within China. The town is known as “The China Artificial Intelligence Town”.
The town is located in Hangzhou’s Future Sci-Tech City. It features developments like big data use, cloud computing, best practices in Industry 4.0, robots, drones and new high end, high performance 5th generation computer chips. Hangzhou is also the birthplace of AI that can outcompete the top Go masters. The nearest rival to Hangzhou is China’s unofficial Silicon Valley which is Shenzhen. Hangzhou is competing quantitatively in terms of starting AI firms with Shenzhen. Innovative start-ups, firms and other enterprises are moving into Hangzhou.
In this area, Alibaba is also collaborating with Zhejiang University to open the Alibaba-Zhejiang University Joint Institute of Frontier Technologies. Alibaba is not the only one. Another major Chinese tech giant Baidu (Hangzhou) Innovative Center is also entering the fray. Besides Zhejiang, another nearby city is trying to rev up its Industry 4.0 as well. There is potential for Zhejiang to link up with Ningbo and may be even form a conurbation or network of smart cities.