Global competition in smart cities highlights China’s rise in AI


Four years ago, the organizers created an international AI City Challenge to encourage development artificial intelligence for actual scenarios like counting cars traveling through intersections or spotting accidents on highways.

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

Last week, Chinese technology giants Alibaba i Baidu swept the AI ​​City Challenge, beating competitors from nearly 40 countries. Chinese companies or universities ranked first and second in all five categories. TikTok creator ByteDance took second place in the competition to recognize car accidents or stopped vehicles from the highway from 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 the world’s smart cities. Expansion of edge computing, use of cameras and sensors 5G wireless connections are expected to accelerate the use of smart city and surveillance technology.

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

The competition comes at a time of heightened technological nationalism and tensions between the U.S. and china, and growing concern about the power of AI. In 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called China “the main driver of AI surveillance around the world.” The group said China and the United States are the two leading exporters of the technology. Last month, the Biden administration expanded the blacklist launched by the Trump administration to nearly 60 Chinese companies banned from accepting investments from U.S. financiers. Also in recent weeks, the US Senate has adopted Law on Competition and Innovation, providing billions of investment for chips, AI and supply chain reliability. Investment in smart cities is also sought, including the expansion of smart city partnerships with Southeast Asian countries (excluding China).

China’s dominance of the smart city challenge can be marked with an asterisk. John Garofolo, a U.S. government official involved in the competition, says he has noticed fewer U.S. teams this year. Organizers say they do not track participants by country.

Stan Caldwell is the executive director of Mobility21, a project at Carnegie Mellon University that helps develop smart cities in Pittsburgh. Caldwell laments that China is investing twice as much as the U.S. in research and development as a share of GDP, which he calls key to maintaining competitiveness in areas of new technology.

He says artificial intelligence researchers in the U.S. 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 donation to the city of Columbus, Ohio, never enough on the promise of building a smart city of the future.

“We want technology to evolve because we want to improve safety, efficiency and sustainability. But selfishly, we also want this technology to evolve here and improve our economy, ”says Caldwell.

Spokesmen for Alibaba and Baidu declined to comment, but advancing smart city challenges could help boost both companies ’commercial offerings. Alibabin City Brain tracks more than 1,000 traffic lights in Hangzhou’s hometown, a city of 10 million people. The pilot program revealed that it was City Brain reduced congestion and helped clear the way for emergency services.

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