Saudi Arabia Has 'The Line,' But It's Not the Only Country Building a City in the Desert. China Is Also Hard at Work, With the Help of AI

Six years ago, a secret plan was set in motion in northwest China with the goal of elevating its national strength to a new level. AI has a significant role in accelerating this plan.

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One hundred years ago, Sun Yat-sen, one of the founders of modern China, envisioned establishing the nation’s capital in Yili, a city in northwest Xinjiang. Despite living in a period of great weakness for China, he foresaw that China would be able to transform Xinjiang into a global political center. Today, that dream seems closer than ever. A first phase is currently underway to transform Xinjiang into a megacity in a desert basin in China.

The secret plan. Until last year, very few people knew about China's plans for a megacity. But last April, a government-funded research team released a proposal to establish a second capital in Xinjiang–to build a megacity of 200 million people. The proposal stated that every prosperous period in Chinese history had enjoyed two capitals, and now it was time to return to this ancient tradition.

Why Xinjiang? First and (possibly) most importantly, because of its size. It’s an area larger than Iran. China had also already begun other projects in the area, such as growing rice in the desert or building the largest solar power plant. Additionally, the enclave was part of Sun’s dream.

The Junggar Basin. This is where the first phase of a massive construction project is taking place. Interestingly, climate change has played a crucial role here. Since the 1980s, there’s been a steady increase in rainfall in Xinjiang, which was previously desert-like. This increase accelerated significantly after 2010, nearly approaching the levels of rainfall witnessed during the Tang dynasty.

Line 1 The Junggar Basin as seen from space.

This change in climate has both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, Xinjiang is obviously becoming more lush. However, the distribution of freshwater resources across space and time remains highly uneven, resulting in both unprecedented floods and subsequent droughts.

The first solution: tunnels. To address this issue, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious environmental engineering project in 2018. The plan involves constructing large-scale water reservoirs and tunnels to store melting snow and seasonal floods and transport water to the desert areas. The ultimate goal is to transform Xinjiang into an oasis capable of supporting a population of 200 million people.

In essence, the plan aims to create facilities for storing and evenly distributing water across different regions. Due to the size of Xinjiang, a significant amount of infrastructure is required. Workers operated tunnel boring machines and other equipment around the clock in a race against time to complete the construction of an underground water supply system spanning more than 600 miles. However, given that the project was so big, construction workers faced bottlenecks. Traditional construction methods also didn't speed things up. As such, the project faced continuous delays. 

The second solution: AI. The approach that has revolutionized the project was detailed in a study in April. As a result, the underground traffic flow has doubled, the average speed has increased by 10%, and the likelihood of accidents has significantly decreased.

How? By creating an “intelligent” underground traffic control system that can operate reliably in challenging environments. An AI is capable of guiding operators with voice commands to enter and exit designated areas, offering instructions to avoid the area when it detects oncoming traffic, and issuing safety warnings when speed exceeds safety limits.

What’s next: autonomous driving. The scientist Wang Liming is spearheading this project for the China Railway Tunnel Group (CRTG). He describes it as groundbreaking research because intelligent vehicle scheduling and management has never before been addressed in such a large and complex underground project. “The next step will focus on obstacle recognition for moving vehicles and autonomous driving,” Wang said.

To provide some perspective, if everything goes according to plan, once this initial phase of Xinjiang’s ambitious project is finished, the Junggar Basin will be home to more than just a regular dam. It’ll be home to the largest 3D architecture on the planet.

Image | NASA | NASA

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