“… should be about the people” (Ana Bazzan)
As part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimist and Pessimist Views c:o/re lecture series, Ana Bazzan delivered a very rich talk on “Traffic as a Socio-Technical System: Opportunities for AI“. It is beyond the scope of this entry to cover all arguments advanced in this talk. Here, we reflect on one matter that we find particularly interesting and inspiring. Namely, two interrelated central ideas in this talk are human-centredness in engineering and the network structuring of human societies. Ana Bazzan’s work contributes to understanding newly emerging social networks, in their many dimensions, and to usher the smart city by engineering and designing traffic as a socio-technical system.
Ana Bazzan highlighted the importance of mobility for equality, in many senses of these two words. Simplifying, a transportation system that facilitates mobility is congruent with democratic and transparent institutions. This realization comes from a user experience manner of thinking or, more broadly, placing the human at the centre of engineering. Stating that traffic and, in general, engineering “should be about the people”, Ana Bazzan further asked: “How to mitigate traffic problems by means of human-centered modeling, simulation, and control?” This question echoes the rationale of the environmental humanities, as posited by Sverker Sörlin (2012: 788), that “We cannot dream of sustainability unless we start to pay more attention to the human agents of the planetary pressure that environmental experts are masters at measuring but that they seem unable to prevent.” It is highly insightful that many sciences find ways for progress by reflecting on human matters. It may pass unnoticed, as a detail, but very different problematizations stem from thinking of either technical or socio-technical solutions for, say, traffic. The endeavour of engineering solutions in awareness of social and cultural context is typical of “the creative economy”, being ripe with a creative conflict, as emerging from “where culture clashes most noisily with economics.” (Hartley 2015, p. 80)
In this interrogation, Ana Bazzan referred to Wellington’s argument that we are now in a century of cities, as opposed to the last century, which was a century of nation states. Indeed, research from various angles shows that digitalization transcends the borders, as imagined through print (Anderson 2006 ), of nation-states. In a similar vein, defining industrial revolutions as the merging of energy resources with communication systems, Jeremy Rifkin (2011) argues that to achieve sustainability, it is necessary to merge renewable energy grids with digital communication networks. This would result in overcoming the dependence on the merger of motorways, powered by fossil fuels, and broadcasting.
Particularly through reinforced learning, digital technology and AI are the instruments of the transition towards smart cities. Smart cities do not merely span over a geographical territory but are better identified as (social) networks. They are incarnate in traffic. Ana Bazzan also insists that broadcasting the same information about traffic to all participants to traffic is not useful. Drivers exhibit a rational behavior, according to pragmatic purposes. More than simply targeting pragmatically useful information to specific drivers, a smart traffic system or, better, a smart city is constituted by multiagent systems, not a centralized and unidirectional top-down transmission of information. As such, while not broadcasting uniformly, this approach is, actually, anti-individualistic. It makes evident the benefits, particularly, the cumulative rewards, of seeking solutions in light of people’s shared and concrete necessities. To apprehend these networks and serve the needs of their actants, Ana Bazzan advocates a decentralized, bottom-up approach. Indeed, this is a characteristic of ‘network thinking’ (Hartley 2015). The resulting networks render obsolete previously imagined community boundaries, revealing, instead, the real problems of people as they find themselves in socioeconomic contexts. The city is these networks and it becomes according to how they are engineered.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006 . Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Hartley, John. Urban semiosis: Creative industries and the clash of systems.
Rifkin, Jeremy. 2011. The Third Industrial Revolution: How lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the world. New York: Pallgrave Macmillan.
Sörlin, Sverker. 2012. Environmental humanities: why should biologists interested in the environment take the humanities seriously? BioScience 62(9): 788-789.