Though Sci-Fi has long explored robots struggling with human emotions, technology experts now warn that smart cities are evolving into vast artificial organisms that may soon have psychological issues of their own.

The topic was raised recently by Marcelo Rinesi, Chief Technology Officer of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) in Boston.

Against the backdrop of smart cities becoming an increasingly potent driver of technology, Rinesi discussed the psychological well-being of the smart cities themselves, not the citizens that inhabit them.

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“Why not? We are building smart cities to be able to sense, think, and act,” he said. “Their perceptions, thoughts, and actions won’t be remotely human, or even biological, but that doesn’t make them any less real.”

He says smart cities are currently a collection of disjointed processes that give them only partial awareness. This perceived information, from sensors or security cameras, flows slowly from silo to silo, if at all.

The one exception to the fragmented nature of smart city intelligence is in threat perception and security.

Only when a smart city is under a security alert do we see something approaching complete integration, with all scraps of information and sensor data knitted together in central databases. All city services are then coordinated to follow a single, holistic plan to respond to these security issues.

“Right now we’re building cities that see the world mostly in terms of cars and terrorism threats,” he says. “A mind that sees everything and puts together very little except when it scares it.”

A smart city just an “incredibly complex machine?”

But Rinesi says smart cities have the potential to grasp much more than just knowing which citizen is a “person of interest” and where to route emergency services to deal with terrorist situations.

He says that a smart city is just an incredibly complex machine we live in. And we can choose what this machine with a hive mind focuses on, beyond security.

“It doesn’t need to be like that,” Rinesi says. “The psychology of a smart city, how it integrates its multiple perceptions, what it can think about, how it chooses what to do and why, all of that is up to us.”

Instead the computational “brains” behind smart cities can be designed to weave together knowledge on other issues like the medical health and quality of life of its citizens.

“We could build it to have a sense of itself and of its inhabitants, to perceive needs and be constantly trying to help,” says Rinesi. “A city whose mind, vaguely and perhaps unconsciously intuited behind its ubiquitous and thus invisible cameras, we find comforting. A sane mind.”