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Government ventures into AI

The Army has enlisted artificial intelligence to help mechanics predict problems in Stryker armored vehicles before they happen.

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IBM’s Watson system analyzed data from the vehicles' onboard sensors and 15 years of maintenance logs to create a comprehensive maintenance picture. Watson demonstrated its abilities on 350 Stryker vehicles during a field test that began in mid-2016.

The Watson AI enabled the pilot program’s leaders to create the equivalent of a “personalized medicine” plan for each of the vehicles tested, said Sam Gordy, general manager of IBM U.S. Federal. Watson was able to tell mechanics that “you need to go replace this [part] now because if you don’t, it’s going to break when this vehicle is out on patrol,” he added.

The Army is one of a handful of early AI adopters in the federal government, and several other agencies are looking into using AI, machine learning and related technologies. AI experts cite dozens of potential government uses, including cognitive chatbots that answer common questions from the public and complex AIs that search for patterns that could signal Medicaid fraud, tax cheating or criminal activity.

Intelligence agencies are using Watson to comb through piles of data and provide predictive analysis, and the Census Bureau is considering using the supercomputer-powered AI as a first-line call center to answer people’s questions about the 2020 census, Gordy said.

A Census Bureau spokesperson said the AI virtual assistant could improve response times and enhance caller interactions.

Using AI should save the bureau money because “you have a computer doing this instead of people,” Gordy said. And if trained correctly, the system will provide more accurate answers than a group of call-center workers could.

“You train Watson once, and it understands everything,” he said. “You’re getting a very consistent answer, time after time after time.”

Many vendors and other technology experts see huge opportunities for AI inside and outside government. In June, an IDC study sponsored by Salesforce predicted that AI adoption will ramp up quickly in the next four years. AI-powered customer relationship management activities will add $1.1 trillion to business revenue and create more than 800,000 jobs from 2017 to 2021, the study states.

In the federal government, using AI to automate tasks now performed by employees would save at least 96.7 million working hours a year, a cost savings of $3.3 billion, according to a recent Deloitte study on AI in government. Based on the high end of Deloitte’s estimates, AI adoption could save as many as 1.2 billion working hours -- and $41.1 billion -- every year.

“AI-based applications can reduce backlogs, cut costs, overcome resource constraints, free workers from mundane tasks, improve the accuracy of projections, inject intelligence into scores of processes and systems, and handle many other tasks humans can’t easily do on our own, such as sifting through millions of documents in real time for the most relevant content,” the report states.

The first step for many civilian agencies appears to be using AI as a chatbot or telephone agent. Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said intelligent agents should be able to answer about 90 percent of the questions agencies receive, and the people asking those questions aren’t likely to miss having a human response.

The General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology program launched an open-source pilot project in April to help federal agencies make their information available to consumers' intelligent personal assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana. More than two dozen agencies — including the departments of Energy, Homeland Security and Transportation — are participating.

“There are, for a lack of a better number, a gazillion sweet spots” for AI in government, said Daniel Enthoven, business development manager at Domino Data Lab, a vendor of AI and data science collaboration tools.

Many agencies, however, are still early in the AI adoption cycle. Use of the technology is “very, very nascent in government,” said William Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights and co-author of the recent report.  But over the next couple of years, he said, agencies can expect to see AI-like functionality being incorporated into the software products marketed to them.

“If it was a nine-inning [baseball] game, we’re probably in the first inning right now.”

A longer version of this article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Grant Gross is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

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