Today's Automated Cities Raise Ethics and Privacy Issues

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We’ve already seen driverless car experiments, drones surveying highways and disaster sites, e-commerce automated lockers, and digital doorbells monitoring homes. Urban automation’s potential to create disruptive technologies that change cities’ future development is evident, and there is much more to come.

While urban automation delivers city dwellers numerous benefits, its various forms raise issues of access, privacy, safety, trust, and discrimination. Many issues still need to be addressed in its design and deployment, said Nancey Green Leigh, the associate dean for research at the College of Design.

The panelists of the first College of Design Research Forum of 2019 will explore ethical principles and values from a range of perspectives that include, autonomous vehicles, building AI and sensors, urban supply chain, and disability services.

The forum will take place Thursday, January 24, from 11 a.m. to noon in the Caddell Flex Space.

We talked with Leigh ahead of the forum to learn more about the complexity of urban automation.

To start, what are we referring to when we say “urban automation”? Can you give a couple of examples?

There is no one definition of urban automation. Loosely it refers to hardware and software developments that substitute for previous mechanical and human-operated physical or decision-making systems to regulate and service urban functions. These developments are largely enabled by advances in information and communication technologies.

Some present examples include, drones, robots, and sensors. Others will evolve in the future.

How does the topic of urban automation fit in with research at the College of Design?

In planning, it can potentially be used to create smart cities, with optimized functions such as transportation, energy and water use, improving the economy and the environment.

In architecture, urban automation is used to make intelligent buildings that are more energy efficient, and meet human needs of comfort, for example in office environments.

In building construction, it is used in the process of putting up buildings and creating infrastructure. We use drones to survey the physical condition of buildings and roads, and  to access damage of natural disasters and develop more effective responses.

In industrial design, much of that focuses on products we use every day in urban environments, ties into the development of autonomous vehicles, and in the more novel application of wearable technologies,

In music, urban automation can capture and analyze the sounds of a city, helping to track noise pollution, monitor traffic patterns, or generate new musical compositions.

How does your research into the economics of the robotics industry play into this research?

I focus on local economic development planning and how technology drives change that affects the opportunities for work, standards of living, and the strength of local industries that support local economies.

One key point is that the majority of economic activity in our jobs is located in metropolitan areas. We are very much a metropolitan nation, rather than the traditional view of urban and rural nation. So the use of robotics in firms has the potential to make them more competitive and productive. It also has the potential to eliminate jobs, which would affect people’s ability to live in cities and have a high quality of life and standard of living. It also has the potential to change existing work and create new jobs.

My work is focused on understanding this. I’m primarily focused on the manufacturing sector, because that is where robotics are most in use at this point.

What is the most pressing concern that urban automation raises?

The most pressing concern is the reason we are having this forum: ethics and values. We know in many ways that urban automation has the potential to significantly transform the world that we live in. We also know our metro areas have longstanding, yet to be resolved, issues of justice for different communities and demographic groups.

There is a lot of controversy over artificial intelligence, which is a key component of urban automation, and to what extent does it augment, or substitute for, the capacity to make decisions by humans.

All of this has major societal implications. Rather than create the technology without considering these potential impacts, the focus here is on: How do we make choices about the urban automation we use? What is our framework for developing these technologies, to be more conscious of the impact of that?

Relative to that are issues of, "Is it going to be accessible for all? How do we build in safety factors?," because we would hope that “do no harm” is a key criteria for deployment of urban automation.

Will it give us the privacy that we expect to have? Privacy is a highly valued aspect of modern life.

It’s also important to make sure that no one is left out of the benefits that can occur with the best of urban automation has to offer.

How do we address these privacy and ethical concerns?

We don’t yet have all the answers or solutions that we need. That is why it is important to have the discussion that we are planning for in our forum. We need to get these concerns to the forefront of the development of technology.

One pressing concern is informing people about how their data will be used. Much of urban automation is about data collection. That data is used to develop software and hardware, forms of automation, as well as products.

We have some ways to opt out, but it is all primitive and legally driven responses. We need more work on that.

How do we ensure a world that is inclusive and benefits all?

The hope is that urban automation will allow us to optimize the functions of smart cities such as transportation, energy, water use, improve the economy and the environment, and improve access to education and training.

The goal is to improve the functions offered in urban areas and the ability of people to participate in society and the economy.

Urban automation should help the people who create and manage cities achieve goals of “smart cities that are just cities.”

Also on the Panel
Joining Leigh on the panel will be Jason Borenstein, associate director of the Center for Ethics and Technology at the School of Public Policy; Carolyn Phillips, of the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (formerly AMAC Research Center); and Dennis Shelden, director of the Digital Building Lab and a professor in the School of Architecture. Leigh is also a professor in the School of City and Regional Planning.

Borenstein will focus on the ethics of autonomous vehicles and other computing technologies. While they hold much promise, he suggests that ethical issues emerging from their design and deployment must be addressed in a consistent and ongoing manner. Ethical issues that autonomous vehicles raise include the privacy of those who ride in them, vulnerability to hacking, and how they may interact with pedestrians or other entities in the surrounding environment.  

Phillips notes that we are at a defining moment as we gather at the crossroads of urban automation, ethics, and individuals with disabilities. The ethical implications when considering individuals with disabilities quickly move beyond beneficence, justice, and autonomy to specific concerns of privacy, safety, and informed choice. As we create disruptive, transformational technologies, it is critical that we pause to ensure we have employed an ethical framework throughout each phase of development and deployment so we can design for true inclusion. 

Shelden will talk about urban automation from the perspective of the built environment -- buildings, infrastructure and cities  – which is increasingly becoming “smart,” as physical spaces and devices in these spaces are connected to simulations and data platforms on the cloud. This presents opportunities for improved understanding of the behaviors of built environments and the interactions of occupants in these environments. At the same time, important questions of information, individuality, and culture are becoming more pressing. Questions of data privacy and ownership, security, and identity that are becoming critical questions for individuals and for societies will become pressing in the design and operation of the built environment.

About the Research Forums

The College of Design Research Forums allow the College community and our friends across the campus to experience the design- and technology-focused research at Georgia Tech. From music technology to product design; from assistive technology to healthcare; from architecture to city planning, we explore the many ways technology can solve critical problems for the way we live.

This forum will be January 24, 2019, 11 a.m. - Noon, in the Caddell Flex Space.

The final research forum of the 2018-19 academic year is scheduled for Thursday, March 7, in the Caddell Flex Space.


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