Keith McCabe, CEO of SimplifAI Systems Ltd, tells Kevin Borras how the project-turned-product is approaching market-readiness and what makes it a unique solution
How does SimplifAI qualify as a smart city application?
There are two elements to it. Linguistically there’s the “smart” part and the “city” part. An interesting way of looking at it is that the things that are currently used to manage cities at the moment have a degree of intelligence in that they are able to optimise, they are able to reduce delays in a particular area or they able to strategically route people, or traffic, around the network. What we are doing is using those elements that currently exist in terms of controlling things but we’re trying to enable them to enact more smart outcomes. So rather than “just” reduce delay, if there’s an event going on we can strategically manage all the traffic around that event while at the same time keeping the city moving. That is what you would call a ‘smart function’. You have to understand the interaction between different things, why things are moving around and what the constraints on them moving around are. The operators are then given control to make those strategic decisions and in doing so you are making these currently intelligent systems very smart indeed. If you can do that on a citywide basis you are moving from intelligent systems to smart actions through to what is undoubtedly a smart city without throwing away your current systems, crucially. This way you are getting a lot more use out of them.
Can SimplifAI be retrofitted to existing systems, used to upgrade existing systems or brought in as a standalone solution? Or all three?
The ideal way to use it is to integrate SimplifAI into your current systems because the existing operations in the vast majority of cities will have taken several years and significant amounts of money to develop. Even if it’s past its useful life, its use-by date, it can be extended significantly by systems such as SimplifAI. You bring the new functionality in when it’s needed.
How could you explain SimplifAI in an elevator pitch? In other words, can you simplify SimplifAI…
It’s a system that brings together the collective, cumulative knowledge of 2000 years of road engineering and 30 years of traffic engineering and ITS expertise around the needs of a modern city in terms of air quality, relief from congestion and the better management of incidents. It gives the power to the operator to implement plans and strategies within two or three key clicks.
How long would that have taken 20 years ago? To detect a major incident that blocks both carriages of an arterial road and inform all stakeholders: road users in and heading into the city, traffic operators, local authorities, police, fire service, ambulance service, logistics providers…
To be fair, even 20 years ago it would have been relatively quick, if you had an integrated messaging system, that is. The bit that wasn’t possible 20 years ago and in fact didn’t exist 20 years ago was that once you had that message you had to reorganise your road network and your transport network as a whole, in order to alleviate the problems that an incident like the one you mentioned has caused. In 1998 we didn’t have that computing power or the ability to know what was going on on the network. Today we have that power and we have that knowledge and SimplifAI is one of the first steps in being able to do that.
According to Moore’s Law, computing power doubles every two years, so where was SimplifAI four years ago in terms of its development and where will it be in another four?
This was starting to become possible when we first mooted the idea of SimplifAI five years ago. The early trials showed that we could implement something within a minute or so, but now we’ve got that down to 3 or 4 seconds. As things speed up we’ll be able to do more complex things, as the computing power of the city authorities increases and the amount of devices that can be connected to it increases at a similar rate.
There is significant interest in SimplifAI from the US and China. How did that come about?
The interest in China came about roughly five years ago when we were looking at where the best possible locations were to develop a system like SimplifAI. – one of the factors was where the most need for it was. We worked closely with the University of Manchester Business School to understand both market needs and capabilities within certain countries and our first conclusion was that the UK and the Netherlands were probably the best countries to develop the system, largely due to the deep, embedded knowledge of how traffic systems work.
However, in terms of megacities, the UK has one and the Netherlands, statistically speaking, doesn’t have any. The US and China have a large number of very large cities – China has 15 megacities and six with populations of more than 10m people. The Netherlands has a population of just over 17m, roughly the same as China’s fifth-biggest city. These cities have to be managed on a daily basis, in terms of traffic, air quality, noise, incidents, etc. The system we’ve developed is ideal for cities of this size. We’re partnering with companies that work in the US and China to see how the technology might be transferred to those two countries, who are the best local partners to work with and who are the most forward-thinking cities that really want to have the best technological solutions that are on offer at the moment. If we can find the right mix we hope to start trials in China and the US in the next 12-18 months. Finally we are part of an Accelerator programme with the Chinese TusPark network in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the first TusPark in the UK that opened in January.
Keith McCabe is CEO of SimplifAI Systems Ltd