The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading

Friendly A.I. :)

There is perhaps no scientific innovation more anticipated — or misunderstood — than artificial intelligence (A.I.). A.I. will transform every industry, from medicine to finance, from law to education, and from energy to agriculture. It holds the potential to bring unprecedented benefits to humanity, influencing how we will communicate, travel, learn, work, and live. It will fundamentally change how we see ourselves. It has the potential to help us solve some of our most enduring problems, from climate change to economic inequality.

A.I. isn’t without its risks, however. It seems increasingly likely that as long as we continue to make advances in A.I. we will one day build machines that possess  intelligence far superior to our own. The concern is not that this “superintelligent” A.I. will become malevolent or evil, as is so often portrayed in pop culture and the media. Rather, the concern is that we will build machines that are so much more competent than we are that even the slightest divergence between their goals and our own could turn out to be disastrous. Even in the best-case scenario, where our interests and the interests of a superintelligent A.I. are aligned, we will still need to absorb the social and economic consequences.  Continue reading

The Architecture of Truth

IMG_2703 (Mark Bessoudo)

[Note: This was initially published in THE CUBE Magazine Issue B: Truth]

Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.

The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint.  Continue reading

Equivalent progress for technology and human institutions

“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.

Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.

Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.

As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.

Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology

Can neuroscience teach us about the built environment? If so, how can these insights be used to create urban spaces and technologies that improve human health and well-being?  And to what extent can industry and governance help in achieving these goals? These were just some of the many questions that were debated at the Conscious Cities Conference that I attended in London in early May.  Continue reading

Health, wellness, and experience in the built environment: From green buildings to Conscious Cities


1. Health, wellness, and experience as core elements of green buildings

The concept of Conscious Cities has been defined as a new field that proposes to replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on human health and well-being. It is a concept that “arose in reaction to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.” Although by no means substituting efficiency, there has recently emerged within the green building industry a complementary focus on human health, wellness, and experience.

This refocusing of priorities stems from the recognition of a failure of humanism in the way we design, building and operate the built environment, Modern humans have essentially become an indoor species, with people in the industrialized world spending almost 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Many of modern society’s chronic health issues related to lack of physical activity, stress, and poor diet, can be directly or indirectly linked to the architecture of buildings and cities.

And yet, the humanistic element has been systematically overlooked by many in the industry. This is not to say that those in the industry have completely ignored it. Building codes, for example, have dictated performance requirements related to indoor air quality, ventilation rates, and thermal comfort. And while health and wellness considerations have also been integral to various green building rating systems, it has often taken a backseat compared to other environmental criteria such as energy performance, water management and material selection.

Consideration of the human dimension in green buildings has gained momentum in recent years. The World Green Building Council noted in 2015 that “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice”. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects predicted that “by facilitating greater collaboration with the public health community, there is an opportunity for green buildings to move past the premise of “do no harm” to a focus on holistic health promotion.”4

This development partly arises from economic considerations. On average, 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related (salaries and benefits), while nine percent goes to rent, and only one percent to energy. Therefore, even a modest reduction in sickness or absenteeism can lead to a meaningful reduction in overall operating costs.

To continue reading, visit Conscious Cities Journal No. 2

Artificial intelligence as a philosophical endeavour

It’s true that artificial intelligence will quickly disrupt the economy and society, but not necessarily in ways that are beneficial. To dismiss the potentially adverse consequences of AI demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will be capable of. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — a machine or system that cannot only learn, but also teach itself to learn — would quickly outpace human intellectual ability in scope and scale, something referred to as an “intelligence explosion”. Unless an AGI’s goals are aligned with our own, the economic and ethical risks posed by this scenario are obvious.

This is why many experts have predicted that moral philosophy will soon become part of the tech sector. So, while the federal government may see AI as a path to reverse stalled economic growth, it needs to remember that it isn’t just a technical or economic endeavour — it’s also a philosophical one. The very people who are developing AI — those trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) — should also have a better foundation in the humanities.