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Building a Smart City

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Cities often don't work very well. Bins don't get collected. Traffic queues are long. Shops run out of goods. The Russian team behind Airalab think that AI can help streamline both cities and the wider economy. Their Robonomics platform, mediated by the blockchain platform Ethereum, aims to make it easier to bring automated, intelligent technology into the economy. With examples of Smart City projects already on the go from Dubai to Milton Keynes, we spoke to Airalab's Aleksandr Kapitonov to find out more. 

Ruairi Mackenzie: (RM): Can you tell me about Airalab and its goals?

Aleksandr Kapitonov: (AK) Airalab was formed around the project AIRA — Autonomous Intelligent Robot Agent. AIRA is a framework with two sides. One is a marketplace for robotic services, with smart contracts for these services offered through the Ethereum blockchain. The second offers maintenance, including driver updates, to service the robots offered through this marketplace.

Using existing decentralized technologies (smart contracts, distributed ledger), the AIRA project team has built a bridge between robotics and economics. The main objective of the project is to provide a secure communication protocol for millions of internet of things (IoT) devices and more regulated roles for the robots on the marketplace. AIRA has focused on projects like machine-to-machine payments, robots-as-a-service, smart factories, autonomous sensors networks, fully automated supply chains – that allow users to quickly create minimum viable product. Decentralized communication allows global addressing and channels for industrial application. 

RM: What does a Smart City look like?

AK: By definition, a smart city means the integration of information and communication technologies and the IoT for the management of the city and its environment. Ultimately, Airalab represents a giant intricate multi-agent network of robot or automatic systems, which we call cyber-physical systems (CPSs), that continually processes terabytes of data.

To better understand this concept, imagine: someone orders through the application a personalized product that is produced through 3D printing from the nearest smart factory. Immediately the request processing service sends it to the internal network of the factory, and production lines or 3D printers begin to compete for the opportunity to realize the product, depending on their performance indicators, material availability, approximate work time, etc. This clarifies the best way to fulfill an order. After production, the product arrives at the automatic warehouse, which requests the delivery of goods to the automatic logistics services. The logistics service, that receives the order, sends unmanned vehicles or drones to the warehouse, and informs the customer about the upcoming delivery. At the same time, the transport requests information from the traffic optimization system on the best route for delivery. After completing the order, all participating agents accumulate data on the work performed to make an analysis of the effectiveness of their work and forecast the future state of the market. For example, the raw materials purchasing service may decide that once the demand for such products has increased, then more raw materials should be purchased for the future. And the logistics service will understand that in the area around the factory it is more profitable to deliver the cargo by drones. This is the magic of a smart city — automated pragmatism. Examples of this smart workflow in operation in cities today are in public safety, environmental monitoring and product history.

A new robot economy in design? Watch one of Airalab's autonomous systems paint symbols.

RM: What is the Robonomics platform?

AK: Full-scale appliance of CPSs –– in production, logistics and urban life will allow us to cope with the increasing complexity of supply chains and deliver quality products to consumers. The main issue here is arranging the global collaboration of different CPSs.

We consider arranging the collaboration of autonomous CPSs to work as a network based on market mechanisms to be the most sustainable option. This network of distribution, control and provision of services by CPSs adaptable to human needs will be built on the basis of market mechanisms and directly accessible to the end user. The network can be created on the basis of peer-to-peer technologies. This allows the machine to process the combination of technical and economic parameters that are essential to the transaction. The foundations of such a peer-to-peer network can be based on the Ethereum infrastructure. By expanding the capabilities of the basic communication protocol, we can train CPSs to interact with market mechanisms and contractual obligations. This is the Robonomics platform — a platform that provides tools for working with the robot economy network. It will allow designers of new cities and industrial zones to build trust among the autonomous robots’ services, provide direct user access for ordering products from autonomous factories and services of urban sensor networks. This in turn will allow us to put in place a decentralized system that globally monitors the activities of CPSs.

RM:What is Ethereum?

AK: For a while Blockchain was a technology focused only on the circulation of transactions of virtual money, cryptocurrency. However, in 2013, Vitalik Buterin proposed the Ethereum protocol, which first realized the idea of wrapping software logic in a secure transaction to ensure its implementation. It’s called smart contracting. The very principle of smart contracts was proposed at the end of the 20th century by the cryptographer Nick Szabo, but there was no environment that would guarantee the performance of the contract and access to the objects indicated in it. Many know Ethereum as a cryptocurrency platform, but in fact it is a distributed computer. For our project, it allows us to use all the advantages of blockchain technology: information logging, the ability to organize data privacy while preserving the publicity of relations between network agents and fault tolerance against faults of individual agents. Ethereum opened the way for the market mechanism for organizing the work of the network of agents.

RM: Why have you built the platform on Ethereum?

AK: In 2015, when we started the project, Ethereum was the only platform that supported smart contracts. At that time, it was the superior platform for providing  smart contracts that are also Turing complete. This platform remains the largest and its creators are working to improve it. 

Aleksandr Kapitonov was speaking with Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks.