China sweeps “Smart City” design contests.

China Leads the Race for Smart Cities, But Arizona Stepping Up

In the great race to be at the top of the AI universe, it is generally a race between the USA and China. They are the world’s top two economies, largest militaries, and the biggest headache for one another. And now comes a story from that will not make Americans feel confident. It seems China’s smart cities are far smarter than ours.

Organizers created the international AI City Challenge four years ago to encourage AI development for real-world scenarios like counting cars traveling through intersections or spotting accidents on freeways. In the first years, teams representing American companies or universities took top spots in the competition.

Last year, Chinese companies won three out of four competitions.

Last week, Chinese tech giantsAlibaba and Baidu swept the AI City Challenge, beating competitors from nearly 40 nations. Chinese companies or universities took first and second place in all five categories. TikTok creator ByteDance took second place in a competition to identify car accidents or stalled vehicles from freeway video feeds.

While Communist China intrudes into citizen’s private lives to the point of zero freedom, it seems to be an accepted cost of that lifestyle. However, having all those cameras, listening devices and facial recognition programs throughout their country have provided a base for their AI systems concerning traffic and problems associated with it.

Investing in AI is China’s Edge

China’s domination of the smart-city challenge may come with an asterisk. John Garofolo, a U.S. government official involved in the competition, says he noticed fewer U.S. teams this year. Organizers say they don’t track participants by country. Well, sitting out the competition doesn’t get you a medal.

Stan Caldwell is executive director of Mobility21, a project at Carnegie Mellon University assisting smart-city development in Pittsburgh. Caldwell laments that China invests twice as much as the US in research and development as a share of GDP, which he calls key to staying competitive in areas of emerging technology.

He says AI researchers in the U.S. can also compete for government grants like the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge or the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. A report released last month found that a $50 million DOT grant to the city of Columbus, Ohio, never quite delivered on the promise of building the smart city of the future.

“We want the technologies to develop, because we want to improve safety and efficiency and sustainability. But selfishly, we also want this technology to develop here and improve our economy,” Caldwell said.

The U.S. is also encouraging AI researchers to develop smart-city surveillance technology with ASAPS, a competition to make AI that helps emergency operators predict when they should dispatch an ambulance, fire engine, or police.

Getting Smart Out West

Bill Gates has started laying out his plans for creating a “smart city” in Phoenix, Arizona, about 45 minutes west of downtown. Located in the far west valley, the piece of land is comprised of approximately 24,800 acres. Belmont, the proposed name for the city, will embrace and push forward innovation and technology. Like Gates, a Phoenix group plans an even bigger project.

In November of 2020, the Partnership for Economic Innovation, together with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Maricopa Association of Governments, Arizona State University, and the Institute for Digital Progress, launched Greater Phoenix’s Smart Region Consortium, otherwise known as “The Connective.” It’s meant to create a smart region.