Smart cities — i.e., cities using information and communication technology to upgrade the performance of various services — are becoming more and more popular across the globe, the hope being that they ultimately improve the quality of life in their given area.

Under ideal circumstances, the use of artificial intelligence in such places will positively impact several issues. Traffic will flow more smoothly. Energy will be used more efficiently. Carbon emissions will be reduced. Crime will be curtailed.

The downside of smart cities is considerable, however, and deal with security and privacy.

A 2017 white paper co-sponsored by the United Parcel Service and the Consumer Technology Association concluded that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities, increasing the need to make urban areas more livable. That same white paper noted that while smart city projects increased by 38 percent between 2013 and 2016, most of those were in Asia, notably Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo., did sound a hopeful note in the report, however:

“Twenty-five years from now, these will just be called cities. The ‘smart’ bit will be assumed. My goal as a CIO is to ensure as we are building out, doing maintenance on all these conditions.”

Copenhagen, Denmark, has made particular inroads in the smart space, with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025 and independent of fossil fuels by 2050. One of the city’s landmark projects is “Copenhagen Connecting,” which involves the collection of anonymized data through WiFi trackers mounted in streetlights, allowing for the optimization of traffic flow, reduced energy usage and decreased carbon emissions.

Other cities, like Hamburg, London, Stockholm and Amsterdam, have adopted similar measures. In Barcelona, meanwhile, sensors connect the Ministry of Justice to police stations, hospitals and the like, and other devices allow drivers to detect open parking spaces. 

Elsewhere, there are such things as smart trash cans capable of alerting garbage trucks to when they are full.

But again, there are drawbacks to smart cities. 

Consider privacy. Police in Tigre, Argentina, have reduced car thefts through the use of security cameras and facial recognition software, but that has led to questions, there and everywhere else, about how such data might be used by governments. Is the door not open to surveillance to a Big Brother-like existence?

Then there is the matter of security. There are those who have hacked into the smart systems operating autonomous cars and planes, not to mention the traffic sensors in Washington, D.C. — though happily none did it with sinister intent. Rather, they wanted to check and see just how vulnerable such systems might be. The implications are ominous, however: Without sophisticated safeguards, a hacker could cause untold chaos in a smart city.

On balance, however, there is great promise in such interconnected areas, and much that can be built upon in the years ahead, as the world’s population grows and more and more people gravitate toward cities.