A whole new world – smart cities will run on AI transactions

Elisa Harca and Eugene Lai, Red Ant Asia, 7th January 2018

AI will underpin all serious moves towards the development of smart cities that strive for a successful long-term future.


This article originally appeared in Jumpstart Magazine.

For some time now, AI has stimulated press coverage from all angles – how it will save us from more mundane tasks, how it will change the jobs of retail and service staff, how the advent of machines that can learn will herald a fundamental shift in how we exist in the world as we know it.

Predicted to increase global GDP by 14% by 2030 (the equivalent of a massive $15.7 trillion), it’s a technology that will underpin all serious moves towards the development of smart cities that strive for a successful long-term future.

Early adopters lead the way

Asia is set to lead the world in this particular tech revolution. The readiness with which audiences in Asia adopt new messaging platforms, their appetite for conversational commerce, chatbots, virtual concierges and other digital assistants has driven the evolution of a thriving development industry which has accelerated the pace of both brand and user adoption. Right now, of the 1.4bn plus mobile chat app users in the world, 805m are based in Asia Pacific – and chat apps are where chatbots and AI functionality ‘live’.

From carrying out bank transactions to ordering food, users are happy to interact with virtual assistants, from WeChat’s WeSecretary and Baidu’s Duer to JD.com subsidiary LingLong’s Amazon Echo challenger DingDong.

So the scene is set for an AI-assisted future – the question is, how will the cognitive landscape evolve and adapt to make the smart cities of the future a reality? The level of commitment in Asia to building smart cities leads the world – China alone is running 285 pilots, and Singapore has stated its aim to become the world’s first smart nation. Couple this with the already-established user enthusiasm for conversational commerce and virtual interactions and there’s a huge opportunity to take AI to an exciting new level – one which leaves simple transactional functionality behind and begins to actually work out and deliver what users want.

Virtual assistants move beyond transactions to become lifestyle facilitators

Tomorrow’s virtual assistants and chatbots will become fully connected lifestyle facilitators which will not only act on orders but will use machine learning to anticipate needs. This is because they will have access to millions of datapoints generated by users who have already taken advantage of AI through messaging platforms, smart speakers and any number of lifestyle apps that rely on personal information. Mining this data and putting it to work will be central to smart city planning, and will affect strategies not only for retailers but for the entire smart city infrastructure, from public buildings and education to private housing, entertainment and communications.

AI will be at the heart of a new relationship between citizens and smart city infrastructures. Instead of remaining dormant until activated by user requests, ‘always on’ smart devices throughout the environment will learn from individual activity to form a picture of their wants and needs which will become clearer and more detailed over time.

This means:

Users and service/product providers will be able to set parameters for intelligent transactions, based on recognising user patterns for purchase and consumption:

  • automatic ordering of standard purchase items, prompting for less regular purchases and promotion of related/abandoned basket items
  • pre-scheduled services such as appliance and building maintenance – even health and education checks
  • ‘smart’ monitoring of utilities, with user-focused facility management based on actual rather than predicted behaviour, reducing waste and increasing efficiency
  • better asset management through connected buildings which have the ability to ‘talk’ to each other, as well as improved safety through automated processes and reduced downtime

Retailers will no longer be limited to either physical store or website:

  • every screen and device will be a potential personal shopping outlet, activated by user proximity and opt-in mobile services such as GPS, payment facilities, accelerometers, past purchases and profiles
  • strategists will need to develop processes for cashless, contactless, intelligent shopping via non-standard outlets from bus stops to billboards and entertainment venues
  • ads will be hyper-personalised because every outlet/datapoint has the potential to know and learn from a user’s shopping history as they pass by with a smart device
  • interactions will be permission-based – users will agree to sharing their details in advance for a range of services, so that the promotions and information delivered to them will be specifically tailored to their needs and will only appear on user-approved screens

It's clear that AI capability will need to be hard-wired into smart city planning from the start. No city will be able to call itself ‘smart’ without the ability to use and learn from citizen data, and AI developers and innovators will be central to building a viable strategy for infrastructure. Those behind smart city development will need both the vision and the conviction to see beyond the headlines and recognise the potential machine learning and cognitive computing has to change our lives and our relationship with technology for the better, and all the evidence suggests that Asia has already taken a significant steps towards making this new, AI-driven world a reality.