True potential for AI as a force of good lies in the public sector

By Amit Roy Choudhury

Used properly, AI can be a game-changer in terms of citizen-centric services and outreach.

Among all the disruptive technologies we see around us, Artificial intelligence (AI) stands out as the one that is likely to have the most profound influence on how society shapes up, due to its transformative nature and its self-learning capability. The private sector has been increasingly using AI programmes in areas like manufacturing, marketing, healthcare, transport, and predictive maintenance, to name a few, with game-changing outcomes.

In comparison, the public sector has been a relative laggard in using AI to provide better citizen-centric services. Despite that, it is safe to say the true potential for good that AI promises can be achieved in the public sector. Used properly, AI can change the lives of ordinary citizens and give them, particularly the poor and disadvantaged sections of society, access to services that can make a major difference in their lives.

One of the challenges that public sector officials have traditionally faced is understanding what services are most important for citizens and the best way to provide them. With its ability to trawl through humongous amounts of data to arrive at actionable intelligence, AI provides the vital tool required by policymakers to make the correct choice and not be dependent on what a committee sitting in a conference room feels the citizens require.

While this may sound a bit clichéd, it is worth noting that in the thousands of years of governance that human history has witnessed, this is probably the first time that the government officials have the correct tool required to understand and provide for the needs of the citizens.

Game changer

To understand why AI is such a game-changer, especially in the public sector context, one needs to understand how it works. Huge amounts of data are being created every second thanks to digitisation of every part of human activity. Think of traffic cameras, online login to portals, digital payments, social media posts, automated voice inquiries, and the other myriad of conveniences that we take for granted.

Data by itself is garbage if it is not analysed to glean actionable intelligence. In the public sector context, AI is an invaluable tool for policymakers because it provides them unprecedented visibility of the problem areas and what needs to be done.

Their self-learning nature is the result of neural networks - a process that in some ways mimics the human brain. This gives AI programmes the ability to provide advice that may not always be apparent to humans but which in the long run turn out to be correct.

AI helps governments to design better policies and decision-making channels, improve communication and engagement with citizens and residents, and improve the speed and quality of public services.

While the potential benefits of AI in the public sector are significant, in most cases the public sector use of AI trails that of the private sector. There is a steep learning curve involved in the government’s use of AI and the challenges are more unique when compared to that of the private sector. There is thus a certain barrier to entry in public sector AI usage.

A Microsoft study has shown that in Europe, two-thirds of public sector organisations saw AI as a digital priority. Yet just 4 per cent have been able to scale AI and achieve high outcomes that result in organisational transformation. Senior leadership support, formalised deployment approach and an experimental mindset and culture hold the key to successfully embedding AI at scale, the study notes.

Even though the study is focused on Europe, the findings would be similar across the globe, according to many AI commentators. The challenge is formulating policies that seamlessly integrate AI practices within a whole government approach.

In the local context, the Singapore government has had a clear understanding of both the challenges as well as opportunities provided by the use of AI in the public sector. Most commentators agree that the government has been one of the global leaders in the use of AI in government services.

Singapore AI strategy

In November 2019, Singapore launched a national AI strategy that identifies five national AI projects. These include transport and logistics, smart cities and estates, healthcare, education, and safety and security.

The government is using AI in these projects to address key challenges that ensure Singaporeans experience successful and sustainable innovation and adoption. The national strategy calls for support from the private and public sectors, as well as international partners.

The Singapore AI national strategy is a follow-on of the plan to harness AI that was launched in 2017 with the establishment of AI Singapore. The programme was set up to bring together all Singapore-based research institutions and a vibrant ecosystem of AI start-ups and companies developing AI products. It aims to grow the knowledge, create the tools and develop the talent to power Singapore’s AI efforts.

The plan, whose fruits are increasingly visible today, focuses on three key industry sectors: finance, city management solutions, and healthcare.

Much of the global smart city projects and Singapore’s Smart Nation ambitions, in particular, are based on this ability to analyse gigantic amounts of data in a blink of an eye and then come out with useful information from the data. This is often done without human touch in the process, with machines talking to other machines and coming up with decisions.

While AI programmes have great potential to provide better outcomes, they can also be misused. The algorithms that go into the making of an AI programme are themselves neither good nor bad.

The cause for concern is the way the programmes are written as well as used. Bias can creep in while writing the programmes. In many cases, citizen data collected for use with AI could potentially be misused.

Trust is important

While this concern applies to the private sector as well, it is magnified manifold when the public sector uses AI and citizen data. Unless there is clear trust in the minds of the citizens that public sector organisations will not misuse the data and programmes, there will always be a credibility gap as far as the government is concerned.

In other words, if there is a lack of trust, the central objective, which is providing better services to citizens will remain an unobtanium.

It is for this reason that ethics are an important part of AI, particularly in the government sector. According to an Ernst & Young study, the controversy over AI exists in four key areas: fairness and avoiding bias, innovation, data access, and privacy and data rights.

The Singapore government has been very proactive in developing an ethical framework for the use of AI both in the public sector as well as the private sector that deals with these four concerns. The framework was introduced in a very well-regarded model AI governance framework in 2019. It was subsequently updated in 2020 with more changes to come as and when required.

While there are a lot of details in the ethical framework, the two guiding principles are that decisions made by AI should be “explainable, transparent and fair”, and AI systems should be human-centric. This means that the design and deployment of AI should protect people’s interests including their safety and well-being.

Singapore Ministers and government officials have repeatedly stressed that the government plans to advance a human-centric approach to AI, one that facilitates innovation and safeguards public trust. If this commitment remains, and is built on, the use of AI can do wonders in terms of citizen outreach and this will ensure better outcomes for all. In an ethical and AI-driven Smart Nation, Singapore residents can hope for a much better quality of life.

Amit Roy Choudhury, a media consultant, and senior journalist writes about technology for GovInsider.

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