Hackable Cities

Every important new technology, it seems, comes with both exciting potential to improve the quality of our lives and a dangerous downside that we can never be sure we fully understand. A recent report from New America Foundation applies this logic to the "smart cities" of the future.


The upside: Wiring up every street lamp, traffic light, sewer pipe, and power line to the internet will create huge opportunities for cities to use their resources more efficiently. Cities that can reduce their electricity and water use or automate the flow of traffic will cut pollution while freeing up money to invest in other things that benefit citizens, like public safety or better services.

The downside: Anything "smart" can be hacked, particularly if it's badly managed or poorly protected. Smart cities will give bad people an exponentially greater opportunity to create havoc and disrupt the lives of millions of people.

There's a precedent: The city of Atlanta was hit with a ransomware attack last year that knocked its court system, police, and other city services offline. With smart cities, the potential for large-scale damage is much greater.

Smart technologies can leave citizens vulnerable to a terrorist organization that wants to score a major hit on an entire city, a foreign government that wants to subvert a rival, a domestic government that wants to punish cities it considers opposition strongholds, an organized crime organization looking to extort a ransom, or an anarchist group that attacks simply because it can.

Other questions raised by the report: Do city officials understand these technologies well enough to interact intelligently with technology firms? Do they have enough support from state, federal, or other partners to ask the hard questions about the economic and safety implications of smart city technologies?

The emerging reality: Both the upside and downside will be with us sooner than you might think. At least 26 smart cities are expected to be constructed over the next six years. There's a risk that engineers will master the technology and political officials will implement it before anyone fully understands the vulnerabilities it creates.

Technology has played a big role in accelerating globalization. While it's our business to advance technology, we also believe that technology should respect and even help protect the world's timeless values. That conviction has led us to announce a new and fourth pillar to Microsoft's AI for Good portfolio – our $125 million, five-year commitment to use artificial intelligence to tackle some of society's biggest challenges. This new pillar will focus on AI for Cultural Heritage. Read more at Microsoft On The Issues.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.