Imagine you’re a new resident at National Landing, moving here from Silicon Valley. You get off the plane at Reagan airport. When you step off the plane, your phone sends out a series of pings, based on a profile you’ve already created. By the time you exit the airport, a Lyft is there waiting to take you to your new apartment. When you get there, a pizza is waiting at your door, having just been dropped off a few minutes before. Later, looking out the window of your high-rise apartment, you know you want to go out, but don’t know anything about the nightlife here–which places will be packed, which neighborhoods will be dead this time of night, and, of course, how to navigate the traffic. You point your phone’s camera lens at the city view, and on your screen, over a real-time video, hundreds of data points spring up, telling you every little detail you could possibly want about the previously unknown city before you.
This is the near-future vision–perhaps promising for some, potentially troubling for others–that could become a reality in the first quarter of 2022, when National Landing is set to debut as the nation’s first “smart city.” It was described to me by Jason Inskeep, director of the 5G Center of Excellence at AT&T, the company which has partnered with developer JBG Smith to build a 5G infrastructure into the bones of the newly fashioned spot on the map.
“That’s the very dynamic AR [augmented reality] use case that we start to see, that also plays into drones, that plays into robotics,” Inskeep says.
The idea, in basic terms, is that 5G creates the potential for a nearly unlimited amount of data transfer in comparison to previous networks. (Your current “5G” phone is only 5G in the sense that it has the capability to tap into 5G once it’s available, but the fully functioning network isn’t quite there yet. If it was, think of how the modern smartphone can do, in the period of a few seconds, certain tasks that your desktop from ten years ago used to struggle to complete–5G has the potential to be that kind of leap forward.)
If you could build a city filled with continuous, uninterrupted access to that 5G data network in every nook and cranny, and also build in the capability for those nooks and crannies to be constantly taking in data through the widespread placement of sensors, what you’d have is an environment where every element is connected and turned into information, an almost one-to-one, real-time digital model of everything in the city.
That’s what Inskeep is pointing to when he talks about augmented reality. Ever since Google Glass’s first, largely unsuccessful, attempt at bringing augmented reality into daily life, AR has become an increasingly mainstream concept, even if it’s never really achieved greater everyday impact than Pokemon Go.
Not to insult the king of app games, but the vision of the smart city is, in part, to go beyond putting a video of a Pokemon on your phone, to create true AR, a virtual reality overlaying and operating seamlessly with our physical one. In other words: If you were to design a Pokemon Go game to be played in a smart city, when you lifted up your phone, you might see Pokemon roaming around at all times, as consistent in time and space as your neighbor’s cat, interacting with real environments, dodging in and around cars and splashing in public fountains as if they were the real thing.
The consequences of that technological capability are more consequential than 90s nostalgia come to life–for good and bad. The good is outlined in the little second-person anecdote at the start of this article. When humans have constant access to a hyper-accurate model of their environment, they can navigate it with a perfect degree of precision, a controlled environment that’s the stuff of sci-fi utopia.
“I’m dating myself with my cartoons, but we’ve got the Jetsons for you…It’s the Jetsons come to life,” Inskeep says.
That’s not just in terms of humans’ ability to process data: autonomous machines, everything from self-driving cars to streetlights that can help limit traffic to, yes, even Jetson-esque free-roaming helper robots, will be able to effectively navigate the city.
“We’ve got the network for Rosie [the Jetson’s robot] to operate–not just in the Jetsons’ home, but as she moves around, going to the grocery store,” Inskeep says.
On the other hand, the same control that leads to those kinds of chipper sci-fi utopias can often, in darker, maybe less fun-to-consume media, lead to dystopias. And Inskeep acknowledges that all that data constantly being collected and shared, in what he refers to as “data lakes,” will present new threats.
“I think there’s a new challenge in terms of privacy there at the aggregation point,” Innskeep says. “You’ve got these new automated [security] tools that have to be set up, and more threats to look for.”
For those worried about AT&T taking on a Big Brother role à la 1984, Inskeep points out that AT&T will take a democratic approach, making the data infrastructure accessible to all third-party developers, and practice the same opt-out and data security practices it applies today.
“We have to be thinking, make it best for AT&T, but make it accessible to all,” he says. Essentially, it’s the same debate about data privacy we have now, but concentrated and amplified right along with the data-sharing capabilities.
That heightened debate will not be contained exclusively to National Landing. AT&T chose National Landing in part because of all the government and college campuses, from the Pentagon to the Department of Defense to Virginia Tech, that Northern Virginia hosts, which make for natural expansions for this kind of smart model. If National Landing is the city of the future, then other cities might soon look more like it.
“It’s a great living lab, right?” Inskeep says. “We think that model can then be taken out to the DOD base, to the airport to, ‘insert your next place.’”
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