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Government eyes artificial intelligence opportunities

It’s very rare a day goes by when we don’t hear about the latest innovations being dreamed up and developed by the world’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) companies. For example, just look at Ford’s $1 billion investment in the AI start-up, Argo, to ensure its vehicles can intelligently traverse the roads by 2021, or Uber’s acquisition of Geometric Intelligence to bolster its commitment to driverless cars. What’s more, it’s not just automotive companies looking to future proof their products and services. Technology Titan, Mark Zuckerberg, is pledging to harness intelligent algorithms within Facebook to identify terrorists, and is already using this technology to help the blind to see photos on the social network by describing them verbally.

AI is clearly starting to shake the negativity that often surrounds it in the media, with many quick to point out a percieved existential threat for humanity. However, should we also be looking at the reverse side of the coin and starting to think about the opportunities and benefits AI can play in today’s society? This is certainly something we’re starting to see when it comes to the public sector.

Although AI technologies are  seen as the preserve of the so called ‘Tech Titans’, the UK Government is starting to see the possibilities for application. For a sector that is constantly under pressure to become ‘digital by default’, AI technology is an attractive prospect when it comes to enhancing the access to, and delivery of, public services that benefit citizens, businesses and employees.

Applied AI 

The good news is that the UK public sector is already starting on its own AI journey with various intelligent devices and applications already in full swing.

One recent example can be seen in Enfield Council’s newest employee Amelia, which is the first chatbot to be implemented by a local government. Built by the American company, IPSoft, she’s set to radically reform the digitisation of frontline public services. Amongst other things, Amelia will help residents of the North London Borough with various tasks, such as completing application forms, and navigating the council website to help people find the exact information they’re looking for, from local practices to current planning applications. It’s thought that in the future, the intelligent algorithm will even be able to assist with more complex services, such as social care.

Enfield is also set to reap the benefits of AI chatbots within its NHS service, alongside further North London Boroughs in Barnet, Camden, Islington, and Haringey. Powered by the AI giant, Babylon health, the chatbot app will be used to supplement the NHS 111 service, and will help to diagnose how urgent a patient’s symptoms are, and whether a trip to hospital or the local practice is needed. With 111 reaching peak periods, the chatbot app will help the NHS to scale up diagnosis when required, and eases the pressure from call operator staff to ensure they can do their job to the best of their ability.

What’s more, the NHS is receiving an AI augmentation in Scotland too.  The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Victoria hospital in Fife is enlisting the help of Snap40, an Edinburgh based healthcare analytics company, to provide patients with AI driven health monitors. These devices can determine when a patient’s health is deteriorating, and assess which patients are in need of further care. With the NHS stretched beyondits limits, AI could prove to be the means via which care can be prioritised according to the needs of individuals. 

Big data, big benefits 

At present, AI plays a big part in the execution of tasks in public sector organisations. But, when applied to big data sets, AI can determine actionable insights at a rapid pace, and create immense change from a strategic level, too.

Analysing social media profiles is a brilliant example of this; when considering that there are 319 million Twitter accounts and 1.86 billion Facebook accounts worldwide, our social media profiles are a goldmine of data that can be of use to various government departments. The University of Rochester in New York were quick to realise this, and implemented an innovative trial in Las Vegas, that used intelligent algorithms to combat food poisoning borne from public restaurants.

Noticing that many people turn to social media to vent about all manner of frustrations, the University of Rochester has developed an application for health departments that combines AI with natural language processing to identify food poisoning-related Tweets. The intelligent algorithm then connects these Tweets to specific restaurants by geotagging them to identify likely hot spots. The Health Department of Las Vegas was then able to carry out targeted inspections at these restaurants. The trial was a success, with these targeted inspections leading to 9,000 fewer incidents of food poisoning, and 557 fewer hospital admissions in Las Vegas during the course of the study.

But from a strategic level, the opportunity that AI offers the public spans far beyond this. Closer to home, the British Police, for example, are using AI to identify criminals from CCTV footage. It’s thought that with even a glimpse of their ear on CCTV, AI can scan this image past the data the Police have on file to correctly detect the suspect. And what’s more, AI is giving rise to ‘Predictive Policing’ in the US, in which criminal suspects can be ruled out or confirmed  for particular cases by analysing data based on their previous crimes.

The future for public policy

While digital transformation efforts require small steps, the Government is already making giant strides when it comes to AI, by working with tech companies such as IPSoft and Babylon Health. And, with the Prime Minster pledging £2 billion investment to AI and other emerging technologies, it looks like these intelligent algorithms are here to stay. What the Government must do now is ensure it is mindful of the possible risks, errors, and governance issues, so that everyone can feel the benefit.

While it might be a few years away yet, we’ll gradually see the Government implementing AI to not just improve frontline services and provide actionable insights, but to actually make better decisions as to where precious financial resources are spent. By applying AI to big data on a macro scale, the Government could determine how effective particular public sector contracts will be based on pre-existing insights, and what the outcomes of particular public sector policies, laws and regulations are likely to be. As technology and government become inextricably linked, the coming years are certainly set to be interesting.

Adele Every is public sector innovation champion at Capgemini