Since the earliest days of the Internet, most government agencies have eagerly explored how to use technology to better deliver services to citizens, businesses and other public-sector organizations. Early on, observers recognized that these efforts often varied widely in their implementation, and so researchers developed various frameworks to describe the different stages of growth and development of e-government. While each model is different, they all identify the same general progression from the informational, for example websites that make government facts available online, to the interactive, such as two-way communication between government officials and users, to the transactional, like applications that allow users to access government services completely online.
However, we will soon see a new stage of e-government: the perceptive.
The defining feature of the perceptive stage will be that the work involved in interacting with government will be significantly reduced and automated for all parties involved. This will come about principally from the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) — computer systems that can learn, reason and decide at levels similar to that of a human — into government services to make it more insightful and intelligent.
Consider the evolution of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The informational stage made it possible for users to find the hours for the local office; the interactive stage made it possible to ask the agency a question by email; and the transactional stage made it possible to renew a driver’s license online.
In the perceptive stage, the user will simply say, “Siri, I need a driver’s license,” and the individual’s virtual assistant will take over — collecting any additional information from the user, coordinating with the government’s system and scheduling any in-person meetings automatically. That’s right: AI might finally end your wait at the DMV.
In general, there are at least three ways that AI will impact government agencies. First, it will enable government workers to be more productive since the technology can be used to automate many tasks. While computers have already done this to an extent — consider accountants who no longer have to manually add up ledgers because spreadsheets do it automatically — AI allows computers to take on significantly more complex tasks, such as recommending medical treatments. AI can be used to search for patterns, discover new insights, extract meaning from raw data, make predictions, and interact with people, machines and the physical environment.
Second, AI will create a faster, more responsive government. AI enables the creation of autonomous, intelligent agents — think online chatbots that answer citizens’ questions, real-time fraud detection systems that constantly monitor government expenditures and virtual legislative assistants that quickly synthesize feedback from citizens to lawmakers.
Third, AI will allow people to interact more naturally with digital government services. Until recently, most interactions with computers required people to adapt to the needs of computers. Users push buttons on an ATM or move a mouse on a PC, not because these are the most intuitive ways to communicate as a human, but because these are the easiest ways to communicate with a computer. But improvements in natural language processing and speech recognition have given rise to virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, which allow users to speak to a computer much like they would a human and increasingly in many different languages.
For example, the startup X.ai has created a virtual assistant named Amy that schedules meetings for users automatically, saving individuals from most of the back-and-forth discussion that often goes into agreeing on a time and location to meet. Unlike a real-life administrative assistant who takes lunch breaks and goes home in the evenings, the virtual assistant can provide an immediate response at any time. And unlike previous attempts at improving meeting scheduling that might require individuals to use an online application, users interact with Amy by email the same way they would talk to a colleague.
While AI is still developing, there are steps government agencies can take today to lay the foundation for the technology of tomorrow. In particular, they should make investments in modernizing their data architecture and building application programming interfaces so that they will be able to use AI on the data they already collect. In addition, they should prepare to work with outside firms because most government agencies are not going to have the in-house expertise to build AI systems.
Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.