Skip to content

What if ... algorithms dictate your ability to walk through the city?

Bigville’s Super-smart Algorithms Make Some Citizens De Facto Prisoners

It was a new era for Bigville: a "smart city" on a different scale – from centralised planning to better behaviour on the street. The world’s first truly smart city went beyond just traffic management and cleaner air; it transformed each citizen’s lived experience.

“Smart policing” applied evidence-based heuristics to real-time community support and protection, ending the divisive practice of “stop and search”. Facial recognition, via the world’s most dense CCTV network, made street crime almost impossible by profiling and tracking individuals the moment they step outside their homes. Individuals who trigger particular threat thresholds are followed, their every movement risk-assessed. This allows for police and emergency services to respond even faster to terrorism, crime and antisocial behaviour. Free from worries about disorder and mayhem, Bigvillers concentrate on what they do best: making money.

So what’s gone wrong?

It turns out the profiling algorithms are becoming more focussed on factors that identify the wealthy from the poor, the cash rich from those in debt and the people who might be most likely to commit a crime. Shopping spaces use the same AI, allowing shop assistants to target those who are more likely and able to spend versus those just browsing. Public spaces and transport, building foyers and shopping areas monitor tens of thousands of individuals, tracking those with the highest risk profiles, with security on standby. Those identified as undesirable are discouraged from entering particular areas and buildings. The result is a growing segregation, with the poor actively managed away from affluent neighbourhoods and downtown areas because some unaccountable algorithm determines they have met or exceeded some threat threshold.

The city planners say the system just needs tweaking and that algorithms are less discriminatory than humans – as long as the data is sound. But many, startled by Bigville’s increasing use of profiling for the public good are asking whether the city, in becoming smart, has lost its soul.

This story shows us how the Internet might evolve. But the path we take is up to us.

Related to: