Global smart cities contest highlights rise of AI in China

Four years ago, organizers created the IA City Challenge international to stimulate the development of artificial intelligence for real-world scenarios, like counting cars passing through intersections or spotting crashes on freeways.

In the early years, teams representing American companies or universities occupied the first places in the competition. Last year, Chinese companies won three of the four competitions.

Last week, the Chinese tech giants Ali Baba and Baidu swept the AI ​​City Challenge, beating competitors from nearly 40 countries. Chinese companies or universities took first and second place in the five categories. TIC Tac Creator ByteDance won second place in a competition to identify car crashes or broken down vehicles from freeway video feeds.

The results reflect years of Chinese government investment in smart cities. Hundreds of Chinese cities have pilot programs, and by some estimates China has half of the world’s smart cities. The dissemination of advanced computing, cameras and sensors using 5G wireless connections are expected to accelerate the use of smart city and surveillance technologies.

The technology displayed in these competitions can be useful to city planners, but it can also facilitate invasive surveillance. Counting the number of cars on the road helps city engineers understand the resources needed to support roads and bridges, but tracking a vehicle through multiple live camera feeds is a powerful form of surveillance. One of the AI ​​City Challenge competitions asked participants to identify the cars in the video feeds; for the first time this year, the descriptions were in ordinary language, like “a blue Jeep goes straight down a winding road behind a red van”.

The competition comes at a time of heightened technological nationalism and tension between the United States and China, and growing concern about the powers of AI. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2019 called China “a major driver of AI surveillance around the world.” The group said China and the United States are the two main exporters of the technology. Last month, the Biden administration extended a blacklist launched by the Trump administration to nearly 60 Chinese companies banned from receiving investments from U.S. financiers. Also in recent weeks, the US Senate passed the Competition and Innovation Act, providing billions of investments for chips, AI and supply chain reliability. It also calls for investments in smart cities, including developing a smart city partnership with countries in Southeast Asia (excluding China).

China’s dominance of the smart city challenge may be marked with an asterisk. John Garofolo, a US government official involved in the competition, says he has noticed fewer US teams this year. The organizers say they do not follow participants by country.

Stan Caldwell is Executive Director of Mobility21, a Carnegie Mellon University project helping the development of smart cities in Pittsburgh. Caldwell laments that China is investing twice more like the United States in research and development as a percentage of GDP, which he calls the key to staying competitive in emerging technology fields.

He says AI researchers in the United States can also compete for government grants like the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge or the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. A report released last month found that a $ 50 million DOT grant to the city of Columbus, Ohio, never quite delivered on the promise of building the smart city of the future.

“We want technologies to develop, because we want to improve safety, efficiency and sustainability. But selfishly, we also want this technology to grow here and improve our economy, ”Caldwell said.

Spokesmen for Alibaba and Baidu declined to comment, but advances in smart city challenges may help fuel the two companies’ business offerings. Alibaba’s City Brain tracks more than 1,000 traffic lights in the company’s hometown of Hangzhou, a city of 10 million people. A pilot program revealed that City Brain small footprint and helped clear the way for emergency responders.

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