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Interview: Architect Carlo Ratti on Cities and Connection

The engineer, professor and entrepreneur on the future of robotics and humans

Thinker, researcher and entrepreneur Carlo Ratti is particularly passionate about defining life in the cities of the future. His goal is not the conception of bigger and grander cities, but cities that genuinely interact with their citizens—and vice versa. He does this within the context of his job as director of MIT Senseable City Lab, as well as in his own design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati, and workshops all over the world.

We spoke with Ratti during the recent Barcelona Design Summit where he gave the commencement speech. Cities and mobility were the main topic of his inspiring keynote, where he presented (among other projects) Minimum Fleet. With this he foresees a possible future for taxis and ride-sharing in New York City.

“The project deals with a lot of big data,” Ratti tells us. “We’ve been analyzing data that was made accessible by Mike Bloomberg. We used the data in order to better understand mobility and, for instance, how we can share mobility—something that allows two people going in more or less the same direction to share a car, to remove one car from the road but also how to do better dispatching. So Minimum Fleet focuses on what is the minimum number of cars you might need to satisfy the mobility matter in New York. I think mobility is going through critical change, and again, it’s something that’s happening in many areas, but maybe we can make a more general point, which is that we’re seeing a lot of industries being revolutionized.”

How can we make sure we have a just society where humanity doesn’t only go to those who have the capital?

More than simply changing the ways taxis function, it’s a concept that will impact people’s personal and professional lives. Ratti says, “It is important as designers that we look at this, we play with this, we explore different options.” He continues, explaining the huge loss in jobs that would occur: “How do we deal with that? How can we make sure we have a just society where there is redistribution? Where humanity doesn’t only go to those who have the capital? And how can we look at transition—how can we retrain people? So I think that the two keywords ‘transition’ and ‘redistribution’ are very, very important. It’s important in what we do as architects, as designers, as researchers to look at the dimension—and this also applies to mobility.”

Self-driving cars are, naturally, something Ratti has put a lot of thought into. “Self-driving cars are usually called autonomous. Autonomous means that they don’t need anything else and you replace the human brain with an artificial brain, with artificial intelligence. When everything becomes autonomous you can do new things. Such as what we did at MIT with the Light Traffic project. We could have streets where cars are closer, faster, safer. To me, the main challenge—especially if you look at the space—is really about this kind of man/machine alliance,” he says—again returning to the human side of the concept. “It’s almost like a new social contract between humans and robots—working together and complementing each other. I think that’s the thing we should look at because it’s not going to happen in a dystopian singularity with machines taking over.”

That said, many people remain worried about AI, big data and automation. For those people with concerns, Ratti provides some solace, “I think there are two timeframes. For the short-term, I think the future can be good and I would suggest to go back and read a beautiful book written by Lewis Mumford in the 1930s, ‘Technics and Civilization.’ If you think about the first industrial revolution, it was about machines doing better than us for some very physical mechanical tasks—like making and producing clothes, thread mills, etc. They were better and then we could do other things. In the short term, certainly I see no reason to believe that it’s going to be different from what Lewis Mumford saw a hundred years ago almost.”

The longterm, he believes, is a little less easy to predict, asking, “What happens when machines are better at everything? What happens when machines are not only stronger, but smarter—they beat us at everything? Even if the future still has to be defined, I still think there’s something very important in this kind of human-machine alliance we’re talking about. I believe more in human augmentation than just human replacement by machines.”

One interesting example is MIT’s Roboat, a system of water drones created for Amsterdam, where boats function as drones and move through the city’s canals, transporting goods—sometimes people, and also building temporary bridges. Such projects make it easy to imagine a not-so-distant future in which we will deal with robotics and artificial intelligence on a daily basis. But we need to consider and define their social, political and financial identities; their civic status and responsibilities. Ratti is very clear about this point, “Today they are a bit like an animal—it’s not like the human brain, it’s a simplified brain. They just learn something and keep on doing it. And I think there’s another part: who’s responsible for that? Is it the people who produce them, is it the people who control them, those who own them? If you have a dog, you’re responsible if it does something bad to somebody. So I think there are many, many questions. And yes, it’s part of this kind of convergence in human-machine integration that we need to define a bunch of rights and duties, not only for humans, but also for robots.”

Of course, this reflects Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which remain, but are widely believed to need an update. Ratti agrees, “We have to have something that deals with human/machine hybridization, because those laws are just about humans on one side, everybody else on the other side. You can say for instance that no robot should harm a human, but what happens when we actually become cyborgs? So I think we need to revisit that.”

Considering the next decade, however Ratti believes that humans, specifically human connection, will remain our most important concerns. “I think in 10 years from now we’ll see probably wanting to be closer to each other,” he says, “That’s what cities are for—bringing us together so we can exchange ideas, views, chromosomes. Those things really are based on physical interaction.”

Images courtesy of MIT Senseable City Lab


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