How Artificial Intelligence Is Already Changing Government

“We don’t have enough people to keep up.”

“We have to go through miles of case law on this one.”

“The paperwork is killing our productivity.”

“We don’t know because we can’t track events like that.”

Spend enough time in or around government agencies, and these are the kinds of pressures you’re likely to hear about. How can governments overcome challenges like these that are both detail-oriented and labor-intensive? Increasingly, they could be turning to artificial intelligence (AI).

You might think of AI as futuristic, but it’s already having a profound impact on government. Cognitive technologies can’t replace the complex strategic planning and management required of public administrators. But we’re entering an era of automated intelligence — the computerization of tasks previously thought to require human judgment.

Here, as explored in a Deloitte study, are five ways AI can help government agencies cut costs, free workers for critical tasks, and deliver better, faster services.

1: Overcoming resource constraints

From Facebook posts to sensor readings, we generate far too much data for humans to make sense of without help. Cognitive technologies can help to sift that data. Electronic document discovery, for example, can locate 95 percent of relevant documents in the discovery phase of legal cases, compared to about 50 percent for humans, and in a fraction of the time. And then there’s NASA’s Volcano Sensorweb, a network of space, terrestrial and airborne sensors that can trigger closer observation by human experts who can pinpoint and record just-in-time imagery of volcanoes and other cryospheric events. This is a major promise of AI: humans and computers combining their strengths.

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2: Dramatically cutting paperwork

By pointing the way to new opportunities for automation, AI can help to significantly reduce administrative tasks, maximizing time for mission-focused work. One Colorado survey, for example, found child-welfare caseworkers spending 37.5 percent of their time on documentation and administration, versus just 9 percent on actual contact with children and their families. And at the federal level, our research indicates that simply documenting and recording information consumes a half-billion staff hours each year. “Bots” can automate all kinds of activities like these, from invoice processing to filling in forms, from data entry to writing budget-reporting documents. By freeing up all that time, we can create a more effective government, empowering employees to do the work that really matters: serving citizens in need.

3: Reducing backlogs

Backlogs and long wait times can be hugely frustrating to both citizens and government employees. At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the backlog of patent applications topped half a million in 2015. Cognitive technologies can sift through data backlogs and perform end-to-end business processes on a massive scale while leaving difficult cases to human experts.

4: Improving prediction

Machine learning and natural-language processing can reveal patterns, enabling better predictive capabilities. By trial and error, computers learn how to learn, mining information to discover patterns in data that can help predict future events. When your email program flags a message as spam, or your credit card company warns you of a potentially fraudulent use of your card, machine learning is probably involved. In government, the Army is developing wearable monitors that use a machine-learning algorithm to determine wound seriousness, helping medics prioritize treatment. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy’s self-learning weather and renewable forecasting technology uses machine learning, sensor information, cloud-motion physics derived from sky cameras, and satellite observations to improve solar forecasting accuracy by 30 percent.

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5: Answering citizen queries

Giving citizens quick answers to important questions improves service while reducing costs and backlog. “Chatbots” can handle tasks such as password resets (which one North Carolina agency’s IT help desk found made up more than 80 percent of its tickets), freeing staff for more complex tasks. On the U.S. Army website, an interactive virtual assistantdoes the work of 55 recruiters: It answers questions, checks qualifications and refers prospective recruits to human recruiters. The system uses machine learning to improve recognition and helpful responses, with an accuracy rate of over 94 percent.

As these examples illustrate, cognitive technologies eventually will fundamentally change how government works, and the changes will likely come much sooner than many think. Some traditional models assume limits on the tasks that information technology can execute. Increasingly, however, such assumptions will no longer apply. As cognitive technologies advance in power, government agencies will need to bring more creativity to workforce planning and work design. The most forward-leaning jurisdictions will see cognitive technologies as an opportunity to reimagine the nature of government work itself — to make the most of complementary human and machine skills.


This article is written by William D. Eggers & originally appeared in Governing.


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