illustration of a mechanical cat and mouse
April 23, 2019

How Robots and A.I. Will Make Your City A Sci-Fi Reality

Robots and A.I. could have a big impact on our urban future.Robots and A.I. could have a big impact on our urban future.

“Bweep boo bweeeee,” Simon-360 screeches electronically out of its 600-pound metallic frame, rousing you from your slumber atop a mattress made of pressurized warm air. You force one eye open and catch a blurry glimpse of a sunny day from inside your glass-encased condo atop a 2-mile high stratoscraper. The busy yet harmonious morning commute of autonomous flying buses, jet-packed professionals, and schoolchildren on boards that actually hover has already begun in your megacity. “Time to wake up. I’ve made you breakfast,” your self-aware artificial housekeeper explains, pouring a glass filled with orange juice, fried eggs, toast, and bacon on your face.

A vision of city life of the future? OR A NIGHTMARE? Either way, there’s no doubt that our lives in urban areas will be impacted by artificial intelligence and human-made sentient beings. Images of clunky, oversized robots that work independently for our benefit (hopefully—with perhaps some glitches or passive-aggressiveness added in) have some truth. On the other bionic hand, robots and A.I. may prove to actually be subtle, ubiquitous, and—at times—invisible, as our lives and societies continue to grow and change. Let’s take a gander at some things already in the works for robots and A.I. that will form what your world will look like in the urban future.

Your Home

You’ve got a friend in Jibo, a behavior-learning robot. Image courtesy of jibo.You’ve got a friend in Jibo, a behavior-learning robot. Image courtesy of jibo.

Living with other people can be a real messy affair, what with humans and their different views on noise, cleanliness, and whether the pet alligator can roam free in the apartment. At the same time, coming home to an empty house can feel, well, empty. Your problems are solved with tech like Jibo!

Jibo is a robot that learns behavior by interacting with you and others. Each Jibo develops its own personality and can talk, play games, and even tell jokes. It’s like having a cool uncle around all the time, who also happens to fit on a table top—and that you can shut off when you’ve had enough of its yammering about the good old days. Just imagine coming home to a house full of friends when you need the company…and a place all to yourself when you need to solo out. There’s no doubt that more options for robotic companions (beyond the helpful home tech already making itself assistant-ly useful) will make their way into your house—and maybe, your heart.

A need to connect doesn’t just affect people. While you’re out enjoying all that the city of the future has to offer, what will your cat be doing? Meet Mousr, a realistic, fully operational robotic mouse to scare the crap out of houseguests. Oh, and for your cat to play with. Because if humans can’t build a better mousetrap, let’s just give into our cats and build a better mouse. Petronics, the makers of Mousr, say it’s “the first robotic cat toy that can see and react to a cat’s movements just like real prey.” Pre-order it now and let your cat decide if the future is worth pouncing on.

Inhabitants aside, the building you live in may be influenced by robots too. The folks at Blueprint Robotics in Pennsylvania are already constructing components of homes—known as modular construction—in their own factory, with better results than conventional home building. They explain, “Always highly reliable, robotics allow us to quickly and precisely execute your project… down to the millimeter.” (Let’s just not teach robots the word “execute” until they’re done building the stairs. In fact, let’s just leave that out of their vocabulary altogether.)

Sure, it’s easy for robots to build components of a home in a climate-controlled factory. But can a robot be on a construction site and actually do, y’know, construction? Enter SAM, or the semi-automated mason, a real robot that lays bricks—and lays them at three times the speed of human bricklayers. Human job-killer? Not quite. While SAM goes about the monotonous task of exactingly laying brick after brick, a skilled human follows to add the details and final touches.

If we’re going to go to all the trouble of using robots to build houses though, it might make sense to just have them handle the whole shebang. The Moscow-based Apis Cor is rushin’ into the future with 3D printing technology that builds an entire home in less than a day. Their motto, “We Print Buildings.”—a phrase that seems nonsensical—may end up being the whole of the construction business. City structures like skyscrapers and residential complexes, along with infrastructure like roads, pools, and parks could all be built—and with less human strain and pain—lickety-split with 3D printing technology.

No matter the method, robots build structures of all types to more exacting standards, and at higher speeds, than humans alone. Shorter time means lower cost in construction, and greater precision in the build means lowering the ongoing expense of upkeep. But will that lower our rent? Maybe a future robot landlord will be more forgiving.

Your Health

Milli-robots and nanoparticles could revolutionize health care. Milli-robots and nanoparticles could revolutionize health care.

Advances in health care, powered by robotics and A.I., are welcome news for those of us who would rather put off expiring until we’re less busy. Or at least until we’re at inbox zero.

San Mateo–based Lumiata drives healthcare diagnosis and treatment decision-making by using, get this, data. Or, as the smarties over there put it, “By linking the data to most recent, best-practice PubMed publications, we deliver the medical transparency needed to drive provider engagement.” And the knee bone is connected to the data and voilà —you’re cured!

While it is complicated, they’re solving a real issue in delivering quality medical care: taking the enormous amount of great research and distilling it into relevant and usable processes that bring more positive outcomes for patients.

Milli-robots being developed at the University of Houston go literally to the heart of the problem. Tiny robots are injected or ingested into the human body and monitored to offer real-time data that greatly outperforms even the most advanced MRI techniques. The future holds the possibility that these same mechanical minutiae will carry curative medicines onboard, delivering things like chemotherapy directly to the affected area.

Not to be out-downsized, those rascals over at Google X are working on nanoparticles as a way to diagnose—and even cure—illness. Like milli-robots, nanoparticles are introduced to the body and travel throughout your innards, offering diagnostic details once exited. Nanoparticles can also provide a remedy for certain diseases by grabbing hold of the pathogens and affected cells. Once in the nanoparticles’ grip, these baddies are unceremoniously exited from your body like an ex crashing your wedding.

Ultimately, your city life will be healthier, longer, and spent with less time in the healthcare system. Using data and tiny mechanical friends, diagnoses and treatments will become minor inconveniences. Provided they behave, of course…

Your Security

Robots like Knightscope’s K5 can help keep our city’s streets safe. Image courtesy of Knightscope.Robots like Knightscope’s K5 can help keep our city’s streets safe. Image courtesy of Knightscope.

Speaking of troublemakers, let’s hope many of the societal reasons that instigate criminal behavior have been addressed in the future. However, if they have not, then it’s once again robots to the rescue. Cue the dystopia!

UAV’s, or “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (or “Drones,” “Flying Robots,” or “I Don’t Know What It Is So I’ll Throw A Rock At It”) have begun to make their way into law enforcement use. Bomb disposal robots, also known as the world’s unluckiest robots, are already used heavily and sent in to literally defuse extremely  hazardous situations. No doubt, they’ve protected and saved human lives.

Put wings on those suckers and police now have a surveillance superstar allowing them to track down and safely pursue fleeing suspects, surreptitiously monitor criminal activity, or simply keep an eye on roadways for accidents and obstructions. The drawbacks? Well, a free society kind of doesn’t like the idea that police, or any other government agency, can quietly monitor its citizens with very little oversight. Seems we want oversight for their oversight.

The folks over at offer the good and bad in a wide-sweeping assessment of the issue. The upshot? Drones will be revolutionizing police work in the future, but regulations have not kept up. With great technology comes great responsibility. The future of security in the city may involve heavy input from citizenry about how law enforcement should hold dominion over our skies.

Bringing it back down to Earth—but still staying in the drone zone—Amazon has filed a patent for shoulder-mounted police drones. Sitting atop an officer’s shoulder, the drone would be an adjunct, or even a replacement for the current forms of police body cameras. Currently, while police are recording with their body cameras, the focus of the events can be hidden or blurred as things get fast and physical. Even in the best conditions, video can only capture what the camera is pointed at, and that rarely provides the widest view.

A law enforcement officer in the future wouldn’t even have to turn on the camera. Before events begin, a shoulder-mounted drone would detect an encounter was beginning and spring into action. The drone would hit an elevation high enough to be safely hovering above the situation, while capturing as much of what is going on as possible. Freed from being “in the action,” the drone’s cameras would record events showing the behavior of both citizen and officer alike. While dangerous conflicts between police and citizens may never disappear, a hovering third eye could bring a better—and possibly more objective—recording of what events transpired.

While robots may either provide law enforcement the technology to intrude on our privacy or the ability of citizens to actively review the actions of police and suspects, another possibility exists: robot police officers. In fact, it’s happening now, with a robot already involved in a fight with an allegedly drunken person. (The robot won.) Knightscope’s K5 was simply doing what it does, patrolling a parking lot, scanning license plates, and looking for anomalous behavior when it was set upon by a biologically based hominid who didn’t take kindly to a non-human monitoring his activity.  When human police arrived (after being alerted by K5 that it was dealing with something it hadn’t been designed for—or signed up for), they discovered a man who had the odor of ethyl alcohol on him. He was arrested for prowling and public intoxication. K5 was propped upright and immediately back on the job like it was NBD. (Human pro-tip: Don’t prowl the parking lot of companies that are developing and testing crime-fighting robots.)

Your City

Pothole repair just got easier with the help of drone technology.Pothole repair just got easier with the help of drone technology.

Patrolling city streets doesn’t have to be limited to citizens. “City, heal thyself” could be the phrase uttered by future denizens of urban areas once self-repairing infrastructure takes root. (It would also need Elizabethan-era pronouns to re-root in our vocabulary.) As it turns out, the whole self-repairing concept is being tested at the University of Leeds in the UK, so if both developments came to fruition, wouldn’t it be ironic? Dost thou thinketh?

There are also concepts like “Perceive and Patch,” in which drones (yes, them again) monitor roadways for potholes and then dispatch a robotic crew to patch them up. In fact, robots could live within infrastructure, like sewer pipes (why shouldn’t the Ninja Turtles have robo-buddies, too?), reporting issues and initiating repairs on their own.

However it’s created, the concept of smart cities is already holding firm in many urban planners’ minds. A self-regulating city that monitors and responds to issues around everything from directing you to an open parking space to collecting garbage is already in the works. Responding to human needs, the city would add efficiency to systems—and ultimately, our lives.

This could go beyond obvious applications, and would run in the background without anyone noticing. Interior environmental controls of buildings, lighting, and the scheduling of transportation arrivals and departures would make for a seamless world where the temperature is always just right, the lights come on when you turn the corner onto an empty street, and the bus pulls up to your front door right when you need it.

It gets better creepier.

What you think of your city in the future may depend on what it’s thinking. Eventually, all of these systems that run on A.I. knowledge collection and robotic execution will culminate in making your city self-aware. Because why settle for a city with A.I., when your city can be the A.I. itself?