City Brain Will Improve Kuala Lumpur Traffic, But It Is Also Disturbingly Orwellian

A new solution to the Kuala Lumpur traffic woes has Automologist LING feeling a bit (okay, a lot) paranoid. Forget Black Mirror . Back in ...

A new solution to the Kuala Lumpur traffic woes has Automologist LING feeling a bit (okay, a lot) paranoid.

Forget Black Mirror. Back in 1998, The Enemy of the State already warned us about the dangers of technology, as a big part of the film showed the U.S National Security Agency using satellites, GPS and on-ground surveillance cameras to track down Will Smith’s character. When that movie came out, I thought it was a bit of a stretch—just another Hollywood exaggeration. Then I read George Orwell's 1984 and still thought 'that would never happen'.

But in a case of life imitating art, Malaysia is now adopting City Brain, a system created by Alibaba Cloud, a cloud-computing company under Alibaba Group. Called the Malaysia City Brain, the system will be able to acquire video and images from 382 cameras feeds and information from 281 traffic light junctions within the Kuala Lumpur centre. By May 2018, there will be 500 cameras. Add artificial intelligence to make sense of this massive amount of data, and you will have the solution to the traffic problems in Kuala Lumpur. At least, that’s the plan.

City Brain was piloted in Hangzhou, China two years ago. The system can trigger emergency response teams (for, say, accidents) or send notifications to mobile phones on real-time traffic and weather conditions. Initial test data found that traffic flow improved by up to 5% and at certain sections, even 11%. The project included collating not just transportation data, but also the activity of every resident—all 9 million of them—from where they commuted to what they bought and what they posted on social media.

Maybe City Big Brother would be a name more befitting...

Since then, the Macau government has also come on board. But Malaysia is the first country outside of China to adopt City Brain; not surprising, considering that Malaysia-China bilateral ties have been growing stronger in recent years, and the Look East policy from the eighties seems to be making a comeback (the Chinese takeover of Proton and Lotus, for example). For now, City Brain will be helping Kuala Lumpur to improve traffic; later, it could possibly help with emergency response services and town planning. After that, surveillance/tracking/control of the population, who knows...

It’s not that I am against technology making the world an easier place to live in. The statistic from the World Bank is that KL-ites spend 250 million hours stuck in traffic, and of course, Big Data and A.I. are able to help solve this very real problem. But no one seems to have brought up concerns about privacy. Am I the only one who wonders what the single entity, which has control over the city’s traffic system and is able to track my vehicle or movement in public spaces, could do with all that “power”? I, for one, will be looking askance at any roadside or public transport CCTV. 


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