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Security officers keep watch in front of an AI (Artificial Intelligence) sign at the annual Huawei Connect event in Shanghai, China September 18, 2019.
REUTERS/Aly Song
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Even the world’s most advanced cities aren’t ready for the disruptions of artificial intelligence

By Jane Li

Which major city is well prepared for the challenges that will be brought about by artificial intelligence? According to one recent report, the answer is simple: none.

AI, which refers to programming that can mimic human behaviors such as speaking, learning and carrying out tasks, is flourishing fast across the world, and being used in applications ranging from facial recognition to autonomous driving. However, along with the many possibilities of AI, risks from its capacity to replace human workers, or from unethical uses of the technology, have also become more obvious.

The Global Cities AI Disruption Index, published by research outfit Oliver Wyman Forum today (Sept. 26), aims to look at how 105 major cities are preparing for the AI era. The report was conducted based on interviews with stakeholders such as government officials and academics, a survey of 9,000 residents in 21 of those cities, as well as an analysis of public social and economic data on the cities examined. Overall, the report measures readiness using four broad parameters—a city’s understanding of AI-related risks and its corresponding plans, its ability to carry out those plans, the asset base it can rely on, and the direction the city is taking.

Singapore, Stockholm, London and Shenzhen rank first in each of those four categories, respectively. But not a single city ranks in the top 20 among all four categories, and none appears in the top 10 across more than two categories. This means “no city is close to being ready for the challenges ahead,” said the report. “Sure, some are better prepared than others, but all cities will need to continue to make substantial improvements to fully prepare for the impacts of next-generation technology.”

Gauging “AI readiness” is far from an exact science at the moment though various efforts in recent years have been trying to do it. For now, it looks like many of the qualities that might make a government or a city prepared to deal with AI are likely to be similar to those that put them high up on rankings of good places to do business. A three-year-old index from Oxford Insights that gauges government ability to capitalize on AI looks at parameters like the skill level of the workforce, for example, as well as a more technical measure like the quality of the data the government has to work with.

But given controversies surrounding the use of AI, from how it can propagate existing biases, to privacy and misinformation risks, governments’ ability—and transparency—in dealing with those need to be a vital part of AI readiness.

China, for example, has been accused of using facial recognition in profiling ethnic minorities including Muslims in its Xinjiang region. Meanwhile FaceApp, an AI-powered face-ageing app developed by a Russian company, has also stirred privacy concerns among users.

The OW Forum research urged governments worldwide to “get real” about the risks posed by AI, saying they tend to downplay or ignore such disruptions while focusing only on opportunities such as “smart city” projects.