Although artificial intelligence and reality-altering devices may be best known for appearances in futuristic novels or TV series, big tech players including Facebook, Google and Microsoft are working to move those technologies into reality. While they may not yet be on all government wish lists, there are a few services available now to the public sector and other offerings represent market trends worth watching.
Currently there exists a trove of terms associated with artificial intelligence: cognitive computing, machine learning, neural networks, data mining and dozens more. However, it can be divided into two overall areas — broad and narrow.
Broad AI refers to what Hollywood has been obsessed with, massive databases of utility and knowledge that can be drawn upon and adapted to handle whatever task is at hand. This is where issues of consciousness and robotic ethics come into play. Narrow AI refers to smart algorithms and capabilities limited to a narrowly defined scope.
The latter is more of what governments should be focused on. “AI is about making better, more informed decisions, and automating those decisions,” said Daniel Castro, director of the Center of Data Innovation.
Releasing its eponymous virtual assistant in May 2016, Google’s system adds to the capabilities of Google Now, representing “an ongoing two-way dialog between you and Google that understands your world and helps you get things done,” according to the company. In conversational style, it learns your preferences and helps you nail down things like movie tickets and a nearby dinner spot. It also builds on the voice capabilities of OK Google, enabling functions like messaging and voice search.
A deep-learning system like IBM’s Watson could be pointed toward many public-sector issues. Originally developed as a “question answering” machine, Watson was famously optimized to compete on Jeopardy! in 2011. The same kinds of algorithms could be adapted to public-sector use. Many CIOs in government see a future for AI-powered chatbots at government call centers.
North Carolina recently began testing automated chatbots at its IT help desk, helping with the 80 to 90 percent of requests from users that simply need their password reset. And former North Carolina iCenter Director Eric Ellis (who left his post for the private sector late last year) rejects the notion that technologies like AI threaten jobs.
“Workers would potentially have the chance to focus on things that are more difficult and challenging rather than spending time on simple things. … We have some very smart people that are being underutilized,” he said. “I believe chatbots will allow people to do more meaningful and valuable work.”
2016 has been referred to as the year augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) markets materialized. Through the popular AR game Pokemon Go to Facebook’s release of the Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s announcement of the HoloLens, the technologies have quickly invaded social media timelines and Twitter feeds.
Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014, but the largest announcement came in March 2016. The Oculus Rift was released to developers alongside two controlling devices, dubbed the Oculus Touch, which allows users to visualize their hands incorporated into the virtual world.
While the first frontier for this technology lies in the gaming world, it has already begun spreading into other areas. “Our industry has made more progress in the last couple of years than I think any of us could really have hoped for,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time of the company’s virtual reality announcement.
Oculus Medium, a graphic design program for Oculus, helps artists sculpt 3-D models in VR. This concept could easily be applied to building infrastructure and city planning.
While VR immerses users in another reality, AR blends the real world with a digital layer. Microsoft has also made strides in AR technology with its HoloLens announcement.
The AR headset runs the Windows Holographic platform using the Windows 10 operating system. While it is currently only being released to developers, there are several uses for AR within the public sphere. A handful of governments have started or are looking into using augmented reality by overlaying digital information or signs on their real-world parks, statues or bridges, viewable by smartphone.
The state of California, the Newport News shipyard in Virginia, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Michigan’s Eastover Elementary School are just a few early adopters. One example of adoption would be a program that allows the public to easily navigate government buildings or locate services by pointing their phones and picking up data.
Widespread use of these technologies may still be a ways off, but early pilots have begun to hint at their vast potential in government.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.