Is Minority Report a vision of the future for smart cities?

John Underkoffler, a design assistant on Minority Report, discusses how smart cities can be designed to benefit residents in the future.

Is Minority Report a vision of the future for smart cities?

TechRepublic's James Sanders spoke with Oblong Industries John Underkoffler about how smart cities can be designed to benefit residents in the future. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

James Sanders: Why should everyday people care about smart cities? If you think of parking meters and security cameras as the first smart city innovations, it sounds like a Panopticon that exists to just nickel and dime people going about their everyday lives. Your company, Oblong Industries, assisted in visual design for Minority Report. From that experience, how should designers approach smart city technology so that it benefits the daily lives of residents and businesses?

John Underkoffler: Well, first off, thank you for even using the word, Panopticon. That's exciting. Jeremy Bentham would be proud. That really is the question and the very last part of your question is the starting point for the answer, how can design proceed so that it benefits the residents of the city versus someone else? The dialogue around smart cities assumes that an entire nervous system as it were is now present, but really we're still at the skin stage, which is to say the sensors are about as far as we've gotten. As you say, there's parking meters, there's surveillance cameras, there presumably are rooftop anemometers and other weather sensors. Who knows what other kinds of sensors we want to embed in our cities? Certainly, traffic sensors and so forth.

But the question of course is, for whose benefit? For whose benefit is this stuff? When we were designing Minority Report, part of the reason I think that the movie came out with such an apparent clarity is that we worked through all this stuff and we didn't work through it with the assumption that the everyday resident would herself or himself be the beneficiary. Rather, what we were saying was that in a kind of precognitive premonition of the web today, we were saying that there was constant surveillance in the city of 2054 not for police state purposes but for advertising purposes. We were simply saying that advertisers had affected the city infrastructure wholly so that they could know exactly where everyone was at every moment and advertise in a super targeted fashion to each person.

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As a consequence, both of buying history, let's say, and their movement around the city. Having that clarity of purpose for good or ill in this fictional story meant that we could kind of derive downstream, and downstream, and downstream consequences, including the design, the physical design and the technological design of this infrastructure. What came out the other end, I think, in the movie that, it screens in 2002, was a sort of remarkable verisimilitude. Yeah, this is the city you'd get if you install surveillance for those purposes. We have a chance now to do something other than that, but only if we're conscious. Only if we're conscious in a kind of social and city-scale way, which means as citizens, as civilians when we get to that old timey word, civics, which some people used to study in high school and is no longer taught.

But it's an important idea. Where do you go? I started by suggesting, and then I guess abandoned the topic, that we've only wired up the most surface there and I think that's true. It's like we've got, to use a biological metaphor, we've got the skin now and we've got the temperature sensors, and the pressure sensors, and we've got some basic nerves in the form of, I don't know, IoT wires and wireless transmissions and so forth, but we don't have a brain to the extent that in modern cognitive and philosophy and philosophy of mind, the brain would also be the seat, the location of the soul, or at least of consciousness. That's where morals and morality lives too. We haven't yet put in place a singular brain that is the mind, if you will, of the city. That would also, for me at least, include a morality, a consciousness for the city, and really that manifests, oddly enough, in a set of protocols.

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Those are logical protocols, but they're also properties of law in a sense. These are the rules that govern how you are and aren't allowed to use data, where it does and doesn't flow, how it gets aggregated, if it gets aggregated, and what rights individual citizens have to see the results of that aggregation. I know that all sounds horribly abstract and a lot of awful Latinate words, but I think it's a pretty simple idea and it comes right back... I didn't need to say any of this, you said in the question, for whose benefit is it? If it's actually for the benefit of citizens, then what we will develop are new kinds of user interfaces that let the individual person see the city, understand the city, feel the city.

If you could be in a dialogue with the city, if you had a kind of intimate relationship with the city the same way you do with your best friend, or with your spouse, or with your significant other so that you can finish each other's sentences, if you could feel the traffic flow in the city, if you could feel the literal energy flow of the energy grid as it gets used throughout the day, as it gets stressed during hot weeks during the summer and everyone's air conditioning is on, that would really be something. That would be a new kind of symbiosis between the human and the urban environment and that could be something of immense importance. Or you do the other thing and you just keep getting parking tickets in the mail, so you choose.

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