In Brief | Artificial Intelligence in the Public Sector

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a way of describing a range of cognitive technologies that simulate the natural intelligence displayed by humans, such as learning and problem solving. Machine learning and robotics come under the umbrella of AI.The following resources will introduce you to artificial intelligence in the public sector.

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The seeds of modern AI were planted by classical philosophers who attempted to describe the process of human thinking. As Pamela McCorduck put it in Machines Who Think:  “Artificial Intelligence began with an ancient wish to forge the Gods.”

The development of the computer in the 1940s allowed scientists to realise their longstanding dream of a thinking machine. Since then, machines have been "smarter" than us in many ways but a central place for AI has only become apparent recently with the development of the second-generation World Wide Web, which depends deeply on AI techniques for finding, shaping, and inventing knowledge.

AI now appears to be on the brink of revolutionising industries as diverse as health care, law, journalism, aerospace, car transport and manufacturing, with the potential to profoundly affect how people live, work, and play. YouTube has grouped together a recent series of videos on AI here.

Digital businesses are already pairing AI and big data to learn customer browsing patterns, purchase history, and preferences. The Appian blog describes AI applications including: personalised recommendations as customers browse online or chat with merchants via messaging apps; identification of customer calling patterns in hours instead of weeks or months; using AI-powered “bots” to handle routine tasks—with natural language processing—to interpret customer requests, and instantly search back-end systems for answers, without the help of live agents. 

The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University predicts that in 50 years there is a 50% chance that AI will outperform humans. For what this means for the future of innovation go to Content Group's Medium newsletter. A June 2018 executive briefing from the McKinsey Global Institute examines the promise and the challenge of automation and AI in the workplace and outlines some of the critical issues that policy makers, companies, and individuals will need to solve for.

Applications of AI to the public sector are broad and growing, with early experiments taking place around the world.  A January 2018 Harvard Business Review article notes that “in addition to education, public servants are using AI to help them, for example, make welfare payments and immigration decisions, teach and evaluate students, detect fraud, plan new infrastructure projects, answer citizen queries, adjudicate bail hearings, triage health care cases, and establish drone paths. Capgemini’s 2017 report Unleashing the Potential of AI in the Public Sector sees improved quality as a key outcome of public sector AI, for instance in service personalisation. This August 2017 Ash Centre for Governance at Harvard University report explores the various types of AI applications and current and future uses of AI in government delivery of citizen services. Lisa Cornish discusses the use of AI to support better government decision making in this 2018 article from the Mandarin.

One way of considering how to make the best use of AI technologies is to think of them as a member of the team that can help people be more productive. Deloitte calls these team members “AI Assistants” with different capabilities which can “augment your current team; relieving them from mundane repetitive tasks and empowering them with analytics drawn by accessing huge quantities of data in just seconds”. Amazon's recent release of the  Alexa digital assistant into Australia has spurred new service offerings through its third party Alexa skills set, including a phone finding service, property updates and energy account management.

Unlike the (often loathed) office assistant Clippy (introduced by Microsoft in the late 1990s) today’s sophisticated virtual assistants now understand colloquial language, provide intelligent answers to questions, and assist users to navigate websites. For government this means the possibility to personalise interactions with citizens, and simplify complex and abundant information on agency websites, in line with the government’s Digital Service Standard.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) was the first agency to implement a virtual assistant – ‘Alex’ – on their website in August 2015. Alex responds to queries about personal tax, and importantly, understands conversational language and learns from questions to improve answers. The Department of Human Services (DHS) has also revealed plans for its next generation of virtual assistants. DHS has deployed ‘Oliver’ and ‘Sam' and 'Roxy' which will have the ability to capture and send information to other applications and assist in processing.  DHS is still working with the National Disability Insurance Agency on the development of its avatar-based virtual assistant Nadia. Nadia uses IBM’s Watson platform and is voiced by actor Cate Blanchett.

As AI becomes more and more ubiquitous, people who work both inside and with government are coming up with an ever-expanding list of ways to use it. This infographic gives an inexhaustive list of specific use cases — some of which are already up and running and some of which are still just ideas.

AI can help manage government data, analyse it and find patterns that humans might not have thought of. When it comes to data sets so big that they become difficult for humans to manually interact with, AI leverages the speedy nature of computing to find relationships that might otherwise be proverbial haystack needles. IP Australia has been an early adopter of AI. The Mandarin quotes a senior officer from the agency as saying in 2015 that “that these technologies will form the foundations of the service delivery of the future and we must start engaging with them”.  As well as trialing IBM’s Watson cognitive computing tool, IP Australia Trade Mark Search – launched in February 2017- contains several AI elements to help people ensure their trademarks are unique. You can read a 2018 case study on the Trade Mark search facility here.

Some government agencies are using AI to recognise and report objects in photographs and videos — guns, waterfowl, cracked concrete, pedestrians, semi-trucks, everything. Others are using AI to help translate between languages dynamically. Some want to use it to analyse the tone of emails. Some are using it to try to keep up with cybersecurity threats even as they morph and evolve. After all, if AI can learn to beat professional poker players, then why can’t it learn how digital black hats operate?

The defence sector is increasingly interested in AI. A 2017 paper from the Rand Corporation describes applications of AI to: training systems for defence vehicles; processing data in military surveillance; using augmented reality to close skill gaps in complex maintenance; facial recognition; solving logistics challenges; support war games; automate combat; speed weapon development and optimisation and identifying targets. Robert Dane – who heads Australian unmanned surface vessel specialist OCIUS – has flagged the crucial role AI will play in security surveillance activities. To hear more from Robert Dane tune into a podcast here. Read  the Centre for Public Impact's How to make AI work in government and for people for a guide on ways governments can reach decisions annd reshape government services.

Even though automation has been affecting humans in blue-collar  high-routine operations for more than 30 years, new developments  in AI and robotics are now affecting white collar jobs, such as law and accountancy. The good news is that new technologies are likely to substitute for some types of workers, and be complementary to, and hence increase demand for, other types of workers. Computer-based technologies appear to be complementary to workers who perform non-routine cognitive jobs. See a recent article by Geoff Borland in the Conversation for more on this thinking.

When the work of public servants can be done in less time, governments might look at AI to reduce staff numbers. Conversely, they may wisely choose to invest in the quality of service delivery. As the Harvard Business Review recommends “they can re-employ workers’ time towards more rewarding work that requires lateral thinking, empathy, and creativity — all things at which humans continue to outperform even the most sophisticated AI program.” Australia's Cheif Scientist, Alan Finkel, talks about overcoming mistrust of AI in a post on the Conversation in May 2018, that includes the idea of voluntary certification for AI tools. Also in May, The Conversation counselled against thinking that AI can "solve everything".

Developing an ethics framework for AI is becoming of  increasing importance both in Australia and internationally. For example, Germany has rolled out government-led ethical advice on the ethics of automated vehicles and New York has put in place an automated decisions task force, to review key systems used by government agencies for accountability and fairness. The UK has a number of government advisory bodies, notably the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the European Union has explicitly highlighted ethical AI development as a source of competitive advantage.

Data 61 CSIRO Australis has developed a discussion paper Artifical Intelligence: Australia's Ethics Framework which will inform the Government's approach to AI ethics in Australia. The report examines key issues through exploring a series of case studies and trends that have prompted ethical debate in Australia and worldwide

On 20 March 2018, IPAA ACT presented Artificial Intelligence and the Public Sector with Professor Genevieve Bell, Director, 3A Institute as its keynote speaker.  A video of the event can be found here. The 3A Institute at the Australian National University tackles complex problems around artificial intelligence, data and technology and managing their impact on humanity. 

Professor Bell also gave the 2017 Boyer Lectures, with the fourth and final lecture possibly the most pertinent in showing how AI has permeated our lives. You can also watch a You Tube video of her discussion with the Digital Transformation Agency in February 2018. Content Group also has a recent discussion with Genevieve on an In Transition podcast.