With the imminent eruption of the Internet of Things into our lives, everything from traffic lights to rubbish bins may soon be able to communicate. When it comes to cities, the looming questions are about how this potential multitude of smart devices will be integrated and how citizens will be able to use the web of services to benefit themselves.
IBM has offered a glimpse into how it all might work, with an app that uses the Watson cognitive computing platform to let residents speak to their city.
To be more specific, the app allows residents of Surrey, Canada, to ask complex questions about city services ranging from fire and police to parking and waste collection. Watson is able to interact with the language of the questions, analyse vast quantities of data and respond in a concise, evidence-based manner.
“IBM Watson's learning abilities are such that the technology builds its knowledge and improves as citizens use it, much in the same way humans learn,” said Bruce Hayne, chair of Surrey's Innovation and Investment Committee.
“This pilot is expected to enhance customer experience by increasing the accessibility of services, while providing the city with insight into opportunities for improvement and reduction to service delivery costs.”
Watson's brainpower is being integrated into the pre-existing “My Surrey” app, which was developed by Purple Forge, a digital agency hired by the local government. There will be a list of frequently asked questions, but the city's residents will be able to ask their own by speaking into their smartphones, laptops and Apple Watches.
IBM isn't the first company to take an interest in tying together the growing interconnectedness of urban infrastructure. In June, Google unveiled a new venture, Sidewalk Labs, dedicated to developing technologies that improve city services. While Google was initially vague about specific projects, the end of June saw Sidewalk Labs acquire two companies working to bring free, public wi-fi to New York City.
At the time, Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff said the aim of the acquisition was to “help make cities connected places where you can walk down any street and access free ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi, find transit and wayfinding information [and] access information about city services”.
There is an obvious overlap between Sidewalk Labs' work on accessing city services and IBM's work in creating a centralised hub for the city. Both of the developments suggest that, in the next few years, we could see a wider rollout of apps connecting our devices with the streets around us.