Intel Survey: Americans Skeptical, Yet Hopeful, About Smart Cities

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figure out what experiences human beings want inside and outside the car. I work with Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist [Bell is Intel’s director of interaction and experience research], and it’s our job to spend time with people and figure out how technology can help them.

X: In the survey results you’ve shared, it seemed like people’s attitudes about intelligent vehicles and roadways depended heavily on how you phrased the question. When you asked people what it would be like to live in a city where buildings, buses, and other physical surroundings gather and share information about what people do, 60 percent of U.S. respondents said that would be an invasion of privacy. But when you turned the question around and said that this kind of data-gathering might lead to cheaper government, energy savings, air quality improvements, and reduced water consumption, then 61 percent in total said it would be worthwhile, and only 38 percent said it still wouldn’t be worthwhile.

SB: What we found was that [respondents] are actually optimistic about employing this technology in cities, but with reservations. We are trying to figure out what is it that people are concerned about, so we can address this. With the idea of having sensors in their cities, they are concerned about privacy, and rightly so. But when we talk them through the fact that the sensor data would be anonymous and opt-in, and walk them through the benefits of what they’d get, they flip over and about 60 percent are in favor. Some of it is just an education process, to help people understand the benefits.

One of the things that surprised me, for example, was drones. There’s been so much in the media lately about drones as death machines in the sky. They don’t have a good rap. Yet when you explain what’s possible, 60 percent of Americans are in favor of drones being deployed for public safety. So some of it is education, and some of it is listening to what are people’s pain points and what do they care about.

X: You’re calling it education, but isn’t it really just rephrasing the question to emphasize benefits rather than downsides? It’s well known in survey design that the way you frame the question can sway or even flip people’s responses.

SB: I’m not a survey expert. A third party company did this survey on Intel’s behalf. I don’t think it was designed to flip people’s minds. It was designed to really uncover what they are concerned about. If we give them examples of benefits, does that change their mind or not? We weren’t expecting this to lead to any particular answers. And we certainly don’t want to go and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in something if there is not a market for it. We genuinely want to understand what people care about, and what was great was seeing that they are actually really optimistic about the idea of a driverless city. In fact, a third of Americans think it’s going to happen in the next decade.

X: Another pattern in the survey is that people in other countries are much more optimistic and positive about this technology than Americans.

SB: Across the board, Americans are optimistic, but outside America, people are even more optimistic. The obvious question is why, when it comes to things like driverless cities and using technology to improve the transportation experience in cities. If you go to parts of Asia where people are dealing with three-hour commutes in each direction to get to and from work, the problem of traffic and urban buildup is much more in your face. We think about horrible traffic jams in Los Angeles, or fighting for an hour to get out of Manhattan, but that is nothing like what people are dealing with in Jakarta, Indonesia. So people are more hungry for technology that is going to solve this problem in their lives.

X: It seems like that would be an argument for investing first in transportation innovation efforts outside the United States, where markets are much more likely to be receptive.

SB: Intel is a global company; we work with companies on a global scale. So whether we will look at focusing on a specific geographic area, I couldn’t say. There are a number of factors when you think about your go-to-market strategy. An important piece is where are consumers hungry for this. Another piece is where are the consumers who can afford it, and where is the infrastructure available to do this. There are a whole bunch of factors.

X: The way some of the survey questions were written, there seemed to be a message that there’s an inherent tradeoff between these smart-city technologies and personal privacy. Do you think that’s necessarily true? In framing the questions that way, are you perhaps alarming people prematurely?

SB: I don’t think that was our intention. Our view at Intel is that where possible, all of this data should be anonymous, and that it should absolutely be opt-in. In the same way you have privacy settings on the services you use and the devices in your life, we imagine you would have privacy settings for your car, and every individual will make their own value judgment. It’s important that we all retain control over our data.

[A survey like this] is good for stimulating conversation about what the world is going to be like and what smart cities will be like. If you make the world a more intelligent place, is that going to make it more convenient and comfortable and efficient and safer? This is an important conversation to have, because over the next 10 years, we’ll have more computing power in a much smaller packages, at lower cost, and it will run at much lower power. You are looking at a time, not long from now, when you can turn any object in your life into a powerful computer. What do we want to do with that? The survey, more than anything, is about starting the conversation.

X: IBM has put a lot of emphasis on technology initiatives, events, and investments around smart city design. Is that likely to be a growing focus for Intel as well?

SB: I would expect so. We have labs based in London doing trials right now around what a smart city might look like, and what are some of the services we could imagine, based on putting intelligence into the world around us. We have an entire division at Intel focused on the Internet of things, and how to develop intelligence and communications that can go into every aspect of our lives. So you are going to hear a lot more from Intel over the coming years about smart cities, smart infrastructure, and smart cars.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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