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

Intel thinks it’s only a matter of time before cars, streets, highways, buildings—in short, most parts of the urban infrastructure—get a brain upgrade. And naturally, it expects that Intel chips will be powering much of the new smarts.

But the Santa Clara, CA-based semiconductor giant knows that public fears about sensor networks and large-scale data collection could be a big impediment to this future. So it has embarked on an international campaign to measure and perhaps sway public opinion about the idea of “smart cities” where sensors are everywhere and cars, buses, and trains operate autonomously to optimize overall commute times and energy usage.

Last week Intel released the results of a survey of 12,000 adults from eight countries, asking how urban residents feel about notions like buildings and roads that collect data on people’s movements; driverless vehicles; computerized traffic optimization; and the use of flying drones for traffic control and emergency response. Participants in the “Intel Freeway to the Future” study hailed from Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and the United States.

The results were striking. As far as people outside the U.S. are concerned, these technologies can’t arrive soon enough. In the seven countries outside the U.S., 60 percent of respondents said their cities should invest in more technology collection and sharing if it could “make the way we live better”—especially if it could ease epic traffic problems. Only 38 percent worried that this might involve a reduction in personal privacy.

In the U.S., by contrast, only 49 percent thought citywide data collection is a good idea, and 60 percent saw it as a potential privacy violation.

Overall, Americans seem sharply divided over the benefits of smart city technologies. Only 40 percent support the idea of buildings and surroundings collecting data. Driverless transportation struck 44 percent as a good idea. Automated parking was more popular, at 50 percent. Commuter route optimization was supported by 54 percent, drones by 57 percent, and computerized traffic control for emergency vehicles by 59 percent.

Researchers at Penn Schoen Berland, hired by Intel to conduct the study, got slightly more positive answers when they asked questions that emphasized the attractions of smart city technologies. Asked whether having buildings, buses, and other physical surroundings gather and share information about what people do would be worthwhile if it meant that it cost less money to run their city, 22 percent of Americans agreed (compared to 29 percent in other countries). If the data collection led to energy savings, 21 percent of U.S. respondents said it would be worthwhile. If it helped improve air quality, 16 percent said it would be worthwhile; if it reduced water consumption, 2 percent.

Altogether, 61 percent of Americans cited at least one benefit that might make pervasive data collection palatable. But 38 percent still said that “living in a city described above would never be worthwhile.”

Given the avalanche of revelations about U.S. government spying programs and ongoing concerns about how large companies, from Facebook to Target, handle consumers’ personal data, it’s not surprising that Americans are wary about building vast new data-collecting networks, even in the service of smoother commutes.

With the “Freeway to the Future” survey, Intel hopes to gauge the potential market and to start a conversation now—before such networks are put into widespread use—about what kinds of data should be collected and for what purposes, said Intel futurist Steve Brown in a Q&A last week with Xconomy. Brown carries the title “Chief Evangelist” at the chipmaker.

Intel’s view is that cities shouldn’t link traffic data to individuals, Brown says. “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,” Brown says. “It’s important that we all retain control over our data.”

Still, the survey data show that hardware and software companies looking to smart-city and smart-highway programs as a future market might be better advised to begin rolling out the technologies in urbanized countries outside the United States, where traffic problems are often more acute and citizens may be less averse to monitoring.

“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,” Brown said. “So people are more hungry for technology that is going to solve this problem in their lives.”

I interviewed Brown by phone on Feb. 13. Here’s the full transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Why is Intel interested in smart cities and driverless freeways?

Steve Brown: I work with Intel Labs, which has more than 1,000 researchers, and they are all targeting application areas. Developing a chip at Intel from conception to rollout can take up to seven years. So we have to be thinking quite far out about what people will be doing and what they will want to do with technology 10 years from now. That’s one of my jobs, to model what it will feel like to be human 10 or 15 years from now. I use that information to input into Intel’s internal planning process.

There is the future we would like to build, and the future we would like to avoid, and the two are equally important. So we think about three big pieces. The first is understanding the technology and when it will be ready for prime time. Second is thinking about the business and the ecosystem. The technology might be ready for prime time, but the world might not be ready to accept it yet. A good example may be self-driving cars. From the smart people I talk to, it’s technologically possible three to five years from now, but then you have to figure out liability, insurance; the legal system is not quite ready for it. Third and most important is the people side of it: what do people want, and what do they care about, and what are they afraid of? That is how this report came about.

X: Is Intel working with car companies right now to figure out what sorts of chips will be needed in cars?

SB: We are doing that today. We are working closely with car companies and infrastructure companies to design and build the technology that is going to make the world intelligent and connected. But as a futurist, I am looking out 10 years. I don’t really focus much on what we are doing today. Some of the relationships with car companies are public and some are not. Generally, we’re working to help them 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.

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

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