October 17, 2019 / 7:56 AM / a month ago

Asian cities risk stumbling 'zombie-like' towards digital dystopia

PENANG, Malaysia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Asian cities turn to technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence to deliver social welfare and public services, urban experts on Thursday urged authorities to address privacy concerns and protect the vulnerable.

From India to Indonesia, governments across the region are backing hundreds of Smart Cities that use technology and data to improve waste management and energy conservation, tackle traffic congestion and mitigate risks linked to climate change.

“Frontier technologies such as AI hold promise to reimagine how the public sector can better serve sustainable development needs,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said at an urban conference in Penang.

“Fast-evolving technologies have the potential to transform the traditional way of doing things across all government functions and domains,” she said, adding that public-private partnerships will be key.

Worldwide, the rise of cloud-computing and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have led to data-gathering streetlights in China, autonomous buses in Singapore and facial recognition systems in Indian airports.

AI, which includes machine-learning, autonomous and data processing systems, is currently being used in crime prevention, trademark applications and to improve crop yields, according to a U.N. study here released this week.

But the increased use of data, and of systems such as facial recognition software and closed-circuit television have also sparked concerns over bias, security, privacy and surveillance.

With systems of social assistance increasingly being driven by data and technologies, there is “a grave risk of stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia”, said Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on poverty and human rights.

This is “especially problematic when the private sector is taking a leading role in designing, constructing, and even operating significant parts of the digital welfare state”, Alston warned in a report last week.

Technology companies operate in an almost “human rights-free zone”, he added.

Governments can guard against this by putting in adequate safeguards, and ensuring that there is good planning and governance, said Lim Teng Leng, deputy director at the Singaporean government’s Center for Liveable Cities.

Technology-based solutions are no panacea for city problems, and can often cause just as many problems as they set out to address, he said.

“Smart Cities cannot be a measure of how advanced the technologies are, but how these technologies are used to solve problems,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“People have to believe that all this data will improve their lives, make their cities better and safer. The government must build trust by being upfront about what data they are collecting, what it is for, and admit when there are mistakes.”

This is particularly relevant to poorer residents and those who are not tech-savvy and may be excluded, said Colin Fernandes at the Global Disaster Preparedness Center, a unit of the American Red Cross.

“Data collection often misses those in informal settlements, who are usually the most vulnerable to disasters and climate change risks, and most in need of welfare benefits and other assistance,” he said.

“There is a failure to collect data, or a reluctance on their part to give up data, because they don’t know whether the data will be used to evict them or protect them. They need to be assured of what they are signing up for.”

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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