The advent of self-defending smart cities

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Humans have been living in cities for thousands of years. One might think that cities have changed a lot in that time. Yet, while the medieval city walls might have fallen, and roads now connect our modern metropolises in vast networks, the essence of the city has remained unchanged.  

Cities are fairly un-intelligent, crude machines. As technology has progressed, we have refined these machines a bit – mass transit systems go beneath the ground, power grids distribute energy and warmth continuously.   

A useful analogy when thinking about cities as machines is to compare them to an organism: think how fantastically simplistic they are in comparison to the machine that is the actual human body. A lot of the functions the city needs to perform, and the challenges it faces, are quite similar to those of an organism.   

In cities, we have to transport goods and supplies from point A to point B. We have to collect and take away waste with bins and garbage disposal services. Compare that to the brilliance of the circulatory system continuously delivering nutrients wherever they are needed, and seamlessly removing toxins.   

Our bodies have the nervous system to let us know what is going on in every part of the body, tell us what condition we are in, or if something is starting to break – an informational system that provides complete awareness and instant feedback. Compare that to the laborious task of physically patrolling city streets, inspecting, peering into nooks and crannies, looking for evidence of damage or change and reporting issues.     

So what’s been holding us back? Cities are the way they are because we’ve been working within the confines of the physical world – macroscopic objects are heavy and they don’t just move themselves. Sound and light don’t travel very far through a city – light waves can’t go through walls, and cities are big so it’s not easy to know what’s going on in every part at every moment. We don’t have access to information the way the nervous system does – we have to scrabble around and manually collect it.   

However, that is about to change, and at a staggering pace. Smart cities have the potential to fundamentally reinvent the very ways in which humans operate and interact.   

The digital world isn’t constrained by the same laws as the physical world is. Virtual objects can be created and destroyed in an instant, moved from point A to point B at will. This means our digital cities can be a lot more like organisms. The key is connectedness: all the parts being integrated into a whole and interacting with each other. Nothing is opaque, everything flows. 

This cyber city – comprised of the cyber footprint of every car, house, person, street lamp, road – is being built as you are reading this article. It is floating over the world of tarmac and litter, with thousands of interconnected devices that are constantly exchanging data, sensitive to the changes around them. 

However, with the convenience of smart cities comes a whole host of unforeseen vulnerabilities. 

Cities face a wide range of threats. Critical infrastructure can be damaged, or malfunction. Power plants can overheat. Bridges can collapse. Natural disasters can strike at any time. How do you detect the early signs of an emerging threat and how do you stop it before it has caused damage?   

The problem is one of novelty – how do you detect and autonomously respond to problems, even the ones that are impossible to predict or anticipate? 

Living organisms have evolved over billions of years to meet this challenge. Our immune systems face new threats every day, but they have an innate sense of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’. So when a pathogen gets in, the immune system is able to not only instantly spot the foreign presence, but also to autonomously fight off infection to restore health.    

Thanks to fundamental advances in AI technology, modern urban environments can now have their own immune systems.  

Consider one example of how this digital immune system will work in practice. Roadworks and congestion lead to an accident involving a heavy goods vehicle, which ends up swerving off the road and ploughing into the arches of a bridge. This impact cracks a sewage pipe running underground next to the road, which begins leaking, and unfortunately contaminates the water supply. This leads to unsafe levels of toxins in drinking water, and ultimately causes a significant number of the population in the area to fall ill. These kinds of scenarios are extremely hard to plan for – you can’t predict that order of events. 

But once the smart city is recording all of this, and processing it with machine learning algorithms, these kinds of patterns can be spotted quite easily, as they all add up to a significant deviation from normal. And it doesn’t matter that we couldn’t conceive of this in advance – once we have all the data, the digital immune system can correlate these weak indicators together to detect the threat as it is occurring, giving humans a chance to address the issue before damage is done. 

Cyber space is in many ways a blank canvas – we get to write the rules from scratch. It is our job to ensure the cyber world is integrated into city infrastructures in a responsible and safe way. When we start connecting our cities, citizens, and data flows to the internet, our lives are going to change in ways we can barely imagine, and ways that were never possible when we were only playing with cement and mortar. And while will reap huge rewards, we also need to be cognizant of the dangers and take steps now to allow us to move forward balancing risk with benefit.

Andrew Tsonchev, Director of Technology at Darktrace Industrial 

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock