When the desert city dreams, it dreams of scale in the superlative. Less oil-rich than its neighbours and a historic port city, Dubai’s focus on luxury tourism and property development in the past 20 years has catapulted the city to launch countless audacious mega-projects, breaking world records and attracting the region’s ultra rich . The United Arab Emirate's Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, also the Ruler of Dubai, is now setting his sights on the future.
If Silicon Valley has brought anything to the world, it is a palpable sense of hyper-growth and scale powered by technological optimism, and none of us, including the Government of Dubai, is impervious to its language and methodology. Dubai, the Sheikh dreams, is to be “transformed into the world’s largest laboratory for the governments of the future” by “disruptive innovation” . Could it be that governance in the 21st Century is moving into a constant state of “beta”, where political rhetoric takes a backseat, in light of the greater priority of attracting cutting-edge tech startups and investors to better shape the future?
The Dubai Future Foundation’s  broad mission is to develop sectors and capabilities to prepare Dubai for this imminent future. When its Futurist-in-Chief Noah Raford was in town to present a talk  at The Global Art Forum at ArtScience Museum Singapore, we rounded up future-oriented media artist duo INTER—MISSION (Teow Yue Han and Urich Lau) to ask him where all this could be going.
Adeline Setiawan: Let’s start off with machine intelligence, because this technology is what is really undergirding all smart cities initiatives. Can you share what you see are the different ways of understanding machine intelligence?
Noah Raford: Most of the researchers doing work around this have been historically grounded in a certain philosophy of mind, a Cartesian sense of dualism, that is, the Object-Subject separation. It’s basic Descartes: “I am a Subject because I perceive the world, and therefore I have some sort of validity and intelligence.”
Of course I’m always somewhat cautious when we try to explore this particular divide, when we get into an “Eastern vs. Western” approach. But certainly, the European Enlightenment project and the philosophers that have been strongly influencing artificial intelligence (AI) research over time are grounded in a certain Cartesian dualism. Mind is somehow separated from things around it, and things around us don’t have mind.
Setiawan: Wait, you’re implying that there are different philosophical, cultural traditions that shape our relationship with machines?
Raford: Well, if you go back a couple of hundred years to the roots of Buddhist philosophy — the Buddhist conception of the mind and self in relation to the world — it’s a very different paradigm. There is an essence of a life force, a consciousness that’s derived from being part of a larger universe. And this is the same life force that animates me, animates you. In some form or another, this life force is pervasive in everything around us: objects, animals, sky, planet.
There is a vast host of traditionally animistic religions, not just in Asia, but everywhere from South America, North America, the South Pacific. The fundamentals of pre-scientific human relationships is about being part of a larger world that is full of life.
Certainly through a non-Cartesian, non-Western or scientific framing, it leads us to a different philosophy of mind, and a different relationship of oneself to an other, and from each other to the world around us. Then you start to arrive at some very interesting conclusions or possibilities that are quite different from where you had been stuck with the cold, calculative, Cartesian approach.
So I ask myself, “Alright, what do these philosophies of the mind, or principles of the self in relation to others, look like in the East when it comes to automation and AI?” There is a whole body of work to be explored around Islam, in the Gulf, in South America, and in other sort of pre-Judeo-Christian worldviews. Not in any way to glorify or fetishise these cultures, but these are just different operating systems, filters of imagination where we tell stories about our relationship to the world. So therefore they’re important, because they’re beneath all of the things that we do. What is interesting is that the body or mind might not be localised into a single object. And that sense of consciousness, or awareness may be distributed across an entire building or a central network, a city, or even a planet.
If you kind of consider this kind of distributed self when we talk about the IOT — the Internet of Things — it seems that these things may have some degree of cognition. IBM or any big company describes it as “cloud computing”. But what is cloud computing, if not a “disembodied intelligence” through sensors that are pushing intelligence down to the edge? Here you have decision-making at the sensor level instead of going back up to the server. You’re talking about embedding different levels of intelligence or awareness into the objects, into the world around us, which returns us to this pre-modern sensibility of “Everything is Alive”.
Masahiro Mori, the archetypical roboticist of the 1970s, who wrote the book The Buddha in the Robot and coined the “uncanny valley” , has written extensively about this. If you accept the premise that animals are alive, and then extend that a little bit further — the forests are alive, then the earth is alive, then there is some sort of larger life force at work in the universe...Then it’s a given that as we start to create new forms of matter and energy, that is, robots of social intelligence, those would also partake in the same life force.
So, if that’s the case, then there’s not a sense of this like, “What is this weird new thing that is going to displace human beings — is this a threat to us — do we need to dominate this, or is this going to dominate us?” No, on the contrary, it’s just going to become part and parcel of a larger tapestry of life in the universe.
Urich Lau: We see in Western films and narratives these dystopic scenarios. The machines are scary. But we also see in the news, how in Japan there are robot Shinto priests comforting the elderly...
Raford: Yes, exactly! There are more robots per capita in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Same in South Korea. Even when you eliminate industrial robots, there is a much greater sense of affinity, awareness and acceptance of robots in our everyday lives, in Japan than there is elsewhere. It’s because of this, that I suspect that adoption, say if you talked about automation as a whole — not just embodied robots — will roll out across most of Asia as well. That’s particularly interesting when you start to look at where the vast amount of research, application and deployment of artificial intelligence and robots are being rolled out right now, in China, particularly in the smart city realm.
There are three kinds of iconic applications of AI in our daily lives now — it’s facial recognition systems, self-driving cars, and shopping recommendation engines.
Lau: But at the same time, the government is also collecting more data and surveillance...
Raford: And why is that the case? This gets us to the smart city initiative. Its first drive is always to make the city work better, to make it more efficient, with less congestion, or say, if there’s an accident somewhere, make the response quicker. These are very legitimate technocratic impulses to help. And if you manage the city or manage the state, then of course you’re going to deploy these technologies to help manage it in a better way.
Let’s fast-forward 20 to 30 years. At that time, we certainly will have vast amounts of intelligence in many objects in the world around us that can sense or respond to the environment around them, perform a task, be it simple or complex, and distribute it around the city. For me, a more comfortable understanding what that world is going to be like, and what are the cultures that might develop in the context of that world, is grounded in this sense of “Everything is Alive”. The city itself becomes a being, an aware object in which we live and operate in some sort of eco-systemic sense.
Raford: Whether or not this Intelligent City will have its own identity, or its own agenda, will be an open question. And certainly, in the mid to near term at least, I don’t think we will start to see machines with their own intentionality yet. But there’s all sorts of unintended consequences and ultimately in the longer term, be it 50 years or beyond, it’s not inconceivable that these machines will start to gain a crude sense of self-awareness, and therefore some ability to learn and modify their behaviour and goals.
Which begs the question, if we live in a world where everything is alive and has different levels of intentionality, or power, then what is the socio-political metaphor for living in a world like that? It comes with an embedded sense of mutual rights, responsibilities and obligations to beings which are weaker than you, and yet also much stronger than you.
That, to me, is a more interesting and perhaps more useful way to explore what a world would be like, where we would have a semi or even hyper-Intelligent City which doesn’t just do what you say — a city which isn’t just your god-slave, or your super-savant. It’s something that might come back to you and say, “Okay, you told me the goal is to minimise congestion in a city. Well, the best way to do that is to ban private vehicles.” And suddenly you’re like, “Wait, woah... I’m an elected official, I can’t do that. That’s a really hard thing to do.” [Laughs] So in this case, we start to approach a world where we enter into a diplomatic relationship with these other beings. And this becomes a very interesting set of negotiations, dialogues, give-and-take. It’s not just about dominance and, “I’m the boss, I wrote your programme, you do what I say.” We’re starting to enter a world where both control and a sense of agency are much more distributed, and therefore, it necessitates mutual respect, interaction, dialogue, negotiation, and diplomacy between beings of many different scales and influences.
And that’s super exciting because it brings us back to where we began — the origin of it all in pre-modern societies. Back then, human beings weren’t in control of the world around them. They had to live in a sense of negotiated give-and-take kind of situations, which I think is really interesting.
Setiawan: You mentioned dominant-dominated relationships... While I can agree with you that it’s beautiful to see a connected, responsive city, I find it difficult to understand how we can negotiate this relationship when we talk about smart cities. There is a certain agenda behind them. There’s a push from the top down, whether it’s government-led, or big corporation-led, and there are consequences to that.
Raford: You’re right. Aside from the philosophical speculations that these sort of topics can encourage, in a much larger sense, there’s a deep question about governance here. I think many people in positions high and low are acknowledging that we are facing the need for new models of governance in the 21st Century. It’s not just in terms of technology, but considering the whole fourth Industrial Revolution, this will be about more than just about operational outcomes. This future evokes a whole new set of questions on values, goals, and means, because it has new opportunities and new risks associated with it.
In the conversations I have with people who are actually doing smart cities work, and certainly in the case of the UAE, there are all sorts of experimentations going around these issues. Whether or not you think this fits into a larger sense of the “pan-psychic” or “Everything is Alive” type of worldview, you have to exist in a negotiation with it. And it’s not a one-dominate-many control model. Even now, young people around the world aren’t willing to do just what their parents tell them, or do what the state tells them. And in my experience, most leadership understand that and is looking for new ways of achieving its goals. Most national leaders of well-governed countries are in it to try to improve the public good. This is certainly the case in the UAE, and everything that is behind the drive for automation, AI, and smart cities. And the tools with which we are doing this offer us the potential to re-imagine new models of governance, which aren’t necessarily based on domination, but might be based on other values and new levels of power.
Most smart cities initiatives that I’m involved in and am knowledgeable of are not intended to be a tool of domination. They’re sought out as a way to manage the public realm better, and to help people live happier, healthier lives. I think it’s a very good thing when we see countries like the UAE or Singapore where there is a very strong sense of the government’s commitment to the public good. As technology becomes more robust, intelligent, independent, and more available to different players and parties, it’s in these countries where those kinds of questions and experimentations on governance will play out in the best possible ways.
So I don’t think we have to be so concerned with the ideology of control in the 21st Century. The truth of the matter is, it will become harder and harder to maintain control. Intelligent leaders, who have the interest of the public good in their hearts, are going to seek it out, whatever the most efficacious tool to help achieve these greater goals of enhancing the public good.
And that might be decentralised systems, things like blockchain. In the UAE, we’re rolling out massive blockchain initiatives for all government services . And that has profound political implications, or at least implications on governance — that people own their own data. You have to grant access to who gets to own the data. You would never have a Facebook moment, because your data isn’t centrally stored anywhere. So this groundswell is shifting – at least in theory – and there is nothing inevitable about it. I think we will have to have new ideas, new mental models and mindsets about citizenship, governance, social relations and social values in order to make the best of the world that is unfolding around us. So, yeah... I’m not too much of a fan of Foucault. We’re not in the Panopticon anymore!
Teow Yue Han: I do agree with you that we're now occupying more of a Deleuzian model... 
For me, my interest is in movement and embodiment, and the composite of the body as a sampling of data. One thing that I thought of when you were talking about the Eastern paradigm is actually Pokémon Go!
Raford: Yeah, absolutely.
Teow: Pokémon Go is in fact a layer of augmented reality, with Shintoism at its core. People are intrigued by the spirits and they’re going around and engaging with the world. But the game still requires a certain physical movement that incentivises play. I guess it all comes back to embodiment, and the sense that these spirits still require some form of stewardship from our bodies. I’ve been thinking about how every time we swipe our phones, we are producing data. I’m more interested in studying how we move around the city, and what can be quantified when we move.
Raford: Pokémon Go is a great example, and maybe it’s the single largest, most effective public health intervention in the history of the human race. Collectively, people in the first year of playing Pokémon Go walked something like 411,000,000 miles . That’s going from here to Neptune and back, four times. And you know, there was no one really in control of that. That was just a decentralised, fully distributed, bottom-up phenomena that was a kind of digital overlay on physical movement.
That’s actually not a bad metaphor for how I think governments will evolve over time. No one can be like, “Okay, everyone go to the parks and walk now.” That kind of control doesn’t work anymore. However, if you can provide an incentive structure or choice architecture, then it’s more like, “Cool it’s really fun, I get to see my friends and explore the neighbourhood, lose a bit of weight, and do something which I really like.”
I think an effective 21st Century city is going to see a lot more of that. Because once those platforms and technologies are there, you’re going to have a billion examples of Pokémon Go — Pokémon Go for everything!
Noah Raford is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Futurist-in-Chief of the Dubai Future Foundation. He was also a former advisor on futures, foresight, and innovation in the UAE Prime Minister’s Office, and is currently the Acting Executive Director of the Musem of the Future. Raford is part of a team that identifies emerging opportunities, strategic partnerships, and future initiatives for the Government of Dubai. He is responsible for overseeing the Dubai Future Foundation’s thought leadership activities, including its design research, trend analysis, policy studies and overall strategic direction. He also oversees many of the Foundation’s initiatives and projects, such as the Museum of the Future, the Dubai Future Academy, and the Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Accelerated Research, and others. He lectures and speaks widely to a large variety of audiences around the world.
INTER—MISSION is an art collective dedicated to discourses of technology in art initiated in 2016 by Urich Lau and Teow Yue Han. Focusing on interdisciplinary and collaborative works in video art, audiovisual, performance, installation and interactive art. The collective aims to inhabit the gap between technologically engaged artworks, artists and audiences. INTER—MISSION builds transnational networks to promote sustained dialogue and engagement with media practices. It creates a space that encourages collaboration, reflection and participation in our ever-changing technological environment through interactive performances, installation, video screenings, international and interdisciplinary dialogues, and knowledge sharing.
1 Dubai is home to the world’s tallest towers (Burj Khalifa at 830 m, and soon, the Creek Harbour Tower at over 1000 m), the world’s busiest airport (with 8.37 million passengers passing through in August 2018), the world’s largest shopping mall by total area (Dubai Mall at 1.12 million m2), and even the world’s largest water screen projection.
2 “Dubai 10X,” Dubai Future Foundation, accessed November 24, 2018, https://www.dubaifuture.gov.ae/our-initiatives/dubai-10x/.
3. Chaired by the Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Dubai Future Foundation is an umbrella of 26 government entities, including the Dubai Future Accelerator programme, the Museum of the Future, and other entities responsible for “coordinating action by public and private sector bodies.” Its accelerator programme, Dubai Future Accelerators (DFA), for example, is an ambitious programme that pairs the world’s top startups with government bodies, and accepts startups on the basis of their proposed solutions to government concerns.
4 Noah Raford’s talk was titled “I Am AI Diplomat: Alien Protocols and International Relations of the Mind”.
5 The Uncanny Valley was an essay by pioneer roboticist Masahiro Mori published in 1970 on how he anticipated humans to react and relate to humanoid robots. He traced a path from empathy and affinity to dis-ease, and eventually revulsion. He called this latter region of negative feeling, the “uncanny valley”.
6 Launched in 2016, the Dubai Blockchain Strategy is a roadmap introducing blockchain technology across every government sector in the UAE by 2020. It is a collaboration between the Smart Dubai Office and the Dubai Future Foundation.
7 In 1990, only a year after the Internet was founded, Gilles Deleuze predicted a profound shift from what Michel Foucault called “disciplinary societies”, the enclosed environments of the 18th to 20th Centuries: the family, the school, the military barracks, the factory, and culminating in the prison (Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as the ultimate metaphor of control). Deleuze proposed a new model, “societies of control” where these spheres co-exist in undulating and open networks, and where control is distributed by computers.
8 The actual figure is even more astounding, if you can believe it. Niantic Labs revealed that Pokémon Go users walked a collective total of 8.7 billion kilometres (5.4 billion miles) in only 6 months since the game’s launch. “200,000 trips around the Earth!” Pokémon, accessed November 24, 2018, https://pokemongo.nianticlabs.com/en/post/milestones/.