Let’s say smarter phones, cars, cities

Let’s say smarter phones, cars, cities

December 10—Over the weekend I had the pleasure of teaching a handful of graduate and doctoral students pursuing their advanced IT training. It was a 22 1/2-hour show between Friday at 5pm and Sunday at 1pm, so that was tough too. I had the easy part of sitting at the head of the class. However, there was more than exhaustion as I could see through the minds and imaginations of these scholars how the next generation of innovators will influence the societal construct as it relates to technological solutions.

Note that my class was not a typical experience so that everyone shared a textbook and the brilliance of my well-prepared, homogeneous lessons. This experience was more supported and guided by me for half a dozen students researching variations on an IT theme. Work has been done in cyber security. One project aimed to provide solutions to known cloud computing issues. The majority of the work selected by the students focused on “smart” technologies. I’ll leave the air quotes from now on, but you can imagine how smarts ascribe to technology other than what your own smarts play out.

Although not statistically significant enough to truly characterize the bulk of work surrounding smart technologies, the fact that more students worked on that topic than any other contributed to the fact that a few projects that did not smart is not, also touched on the topic, was significant for me. I saw it as a sign of the future. A sign that joins many other signs if you review current technology literature. After all, you can’t take in the phrase “artificial intelligence,” another hot piece of ongoing IT developments, without invoking the concept of smartness. Intelligence and smarts, whether in your own personality or in technology, go hand-in-hand.

One of these wise scholars, with her intelligence and cleverness engaged, explored the current topics and the futuristic possibilities of smart highways and roads. Another related branch on the technological tree of wisdom dealt with smart vehicles. There was a whole other project, which was an ambitious scope considering several dozen hours invested, about smart cities. How stupid everything we’re wrapped up in—especially roads, cars, and cities—must seem to these budding inventors and visionaries!

It was all quite fascinating to me. Rest assured that as fanciful as some ideas may have been, there is no doubt that some of them will come to fruition. Some are already in development, or in a trial phase. On the more fanciful and fantastical side, one corner has cleverly synthesized highways and vehicles, at least two-wheeled transport. The idea was that with the right hardware—eg. roads and infrastructure—and the right software—ie motorcycles and their riders—technology can be developed that maintains the balance of a motorcycle regardless of driving conditions. Wet, snowy or otherwise compromised surfaces? No problem. Drag effects from heavier semi-tractors shooting too close for comfort? Upright as always. Coincidence that gives the rider no chance but to over a “gator skin?” Still, no problem, but let me digress if you’re unaware, as I was, that in motorcycle culture a gator skin can be in the way, even north of Florida or Louisiana. These are the replays of semis. Rather than replacing the entire tire, truckers sometimes retread their worn tires, and when done improperly or left in service too long, they can loosen. We’ve all seen roadblocks, maybe even traveled over them. For two-wheelers, it can be devastating.

Envisioning a technology that maintains a motorcycle’s upright posture regardless of the environment seems ambitious. Still, there’s no telling if that can happen. However, some of the other ideas under this weekend’s research lens are much closer to reality.

In Michigan, there is currently a smart highway solution being developed by an Israeli company that has a fairly focused capability that favors electric vehicles. Over the last five or 10 years we’ve seen smartphone technology evolve similarly – again I never realized how stupid our old phones were, although even as a kid I knew it was stupid living in the sticks and a party line shared. Charging phones these days doesn’t always require connecting with a cable and plug. We can charge phones magnetically of course. So did the Michigan experiment. For about $3 million, one mile of the road is being built in a way that your EV will be charged as you cross it. Economies of scale being what they are, the cost is estimated to drop to around $500,000 give or take per mile, which still seems amazing. Until, that is, you can imagine what my student did, which was that in the right place, no amount of time and expense spent by millions of vehicles every day can keep cars still charged. Time and cost are obviously heavy on the front end, and a savvy capitalist will surely find a way to take advantage of this.

In Chicagoland, another smart freeway solution is in the works. With six or eight lanes of traffic, and travelers of all kinds—wobbly motorcycles, heavy trucks, commuters, buses, etc.—using those lanes 24/7/365, the various uses wax and wane throughout the day and seasons. So the project aims to convert petabytes (don’t think too hard…it’s a lot) of data processed by machine learning to determine what purpose each track is best suited for at any given time. Sensors in the hardware and software keep usage under control, and utilize the lanes efficiently.

Smart cities … Well, now we are talking about such a scope that leaves me no room to expand. Whether it all comes? Hard to say. The very bright students I have engaged are stubborn and have strong minds. We will see how stupid of a world we live now.

Ed Zuger is a professor of cybersecurity, a lawyer, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at [email protected]

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