Interview: Adding Human Experience to Tech Cities

Ali Rebaie, Data Anthropologist and President of Rebaie Analytics Group, discusses with "The Sustainabilist" Magazine the ways in which anthropology will shape the cities of tomorrow


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Ali Rebaie
Ali Rebaie is the President of Rebaie Analytics Group and a data anthropologist studying the impact of AI on business and life.

What made you go into the field of anthropology?
I had no idea, when I was intrigued by pattern recognition games when I was a kid, that data would become my bread and butter. It wasn’t until I visited Al Hambra castle during 2011 in Granada, Spain that I became fascinated by patterns, mathematics, visual arts, and social sciences manifested in the architecture there. At that time, I used to build data warehouses and I predicted the rise of AI and its innovative applications. It was eyeopening to me, I noticed that what is really needed in this decade for AI to achieve its promise, is arts and social sciences, like anthropology.

As AI continues to develop, the only way to make it human-centric is to extend and understand our ancestor’s cognitive evolution and the experiences we aim to achieve. That’s one of the roles of the data anthropologist who constructs and understands the consequences of AI on society along with other influences like privacy and ethics.

As the global cities begin their transition into smart cities, how can an anthropology perspective aid in this transition?

As cities worldwide aim to become smarter, their ultimate goal is to become percipient, astute, and quick. Anthropology is key in this as it helps city stakeholders understand the historical timeline of a place, behaviours, needs, and feelings of people living there, improve an urban space by observing behaviour, map their emotional experience of a place, and predict how a new construction would affect their current state.

AI combined with urban anthropology, or what we coined at Rebaie Analytics Group, urban data anthropology, helps in mapping the emotional experience of a place by collecting physiological measurements. Anthropology excels at understanding the “why” of human behaviour. Some of the tools used in urban data anthropology to assess urban forms in a city are visual arts, anthropological methods like direct observation, ethnographic methods, machine intelligence, and AI algorithms.

Only with Urban Data Anthropology can we pave the way for an augmented smart city. This transition will enable what I call a “kin-directed city”. Kin selection comes from biology and anthropology, and refers to preferences for kin, and the benefits of mutualism and reciprocity among kin. Humans and machines carry on a cooperative behaviour and inhibit dispersal of resources in an Internet of Things environment. The idea is to have generated data shared with among devices.

This transition will enable what I call a “kin-directed city” 

Citizens in the AI nation will walk down the streets of an augmented city with wearable devices that monitor their health and send them real-time alerts. They will share the data with smart nearby devices like CCTV cameras, drones, and vehicles on the streets. These devices will reward them with bigger computational power than their tiny wearable can achieve.

Do you believe that creating more human-scale sustainable cities necessitates the analysis of urban environments, and why?

Indeed, the analysis of urban environments stated above is a cornerstone. We are seeing some great efforts to build humanscale sustainable cities for disabled people, like developing a network of sensors to assist the visually impaired to move around independently. However, the term “smart city” is becoming a misleading euphemism of the “ghost city of sensors”. Lee, a citizen of Songdo, Korea’s smart city stated: “When I first came here during the winter,” Lee says, “I felt something cold.” It was not about the weather, it was about human warmth and interaction.Thus, to feel warmth in a smart city, understanding the human experience towards a city, its architecture, and holistic human development is needed.

The physical connection of citizens towards their buildings is not enough, there should be an emotional and spiritual connection to create a “topophilia” towards a place. To illustrate the usage of urban data anthropology to analyse urban environments, AI sensors can show detailed behaviour in a smart building and how they interacted in spaces. But why people behave the way we do is where anthropology excels. These insights could be used to improve productivity and liveability in smart buildings.

Sustainable architecture is reflected in the relationship between the built and natural environment. It influences and is influenced by citizens’ behaviours and both cannot be built and grasped without strong ethical values. Campaigning sustainability will only yield results when everyone is involved, not just urban planners and architects. Thus, the ways urban forms are architected can help us monitor the philosophy, sustainability attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyles, and influences of citizens who architected them.

Are you optimistic about the future, why or why not?

As humans, we are masters of flexibility and this is what helped our ancestors fight climate change and build a circular economy. Behaviors that shaped our humanity like social learning should be adapted in cities so we can teach each other ethical AI and provide us with an “unforgettable spectacle”.

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