What if you could get anything you wanted just by asking for it?
It sounds like a fantastical prospect, but this kind of interaction now appears to be the goal of a category of software tools called “bots.” Bots have long been used to automate repetitive computing tasks, but are now increasingly used to communicate directly with users.
These artificial intelligence programs mimic human speech to answer questions, order products, and complete many other tasks. Several technology companies are working on integrating bots into their own products and competing to add functionality. In a similar way, all levels of government are interested in using technology to deliver services more efficiently. Once bots are proven capable in the private sector, how might they offer the same benefit for government services?
Typical software uses text-based or graphical user interfaces with commands, menus, and icons. Bots are powerful because they can combine many applications into a single voice or text-based interface. They interact with users with natural language, which they acquire from example social media posts, search queries, and recorded speech. Given enough examples, a bot can carry on a basic conversation. While existing bots can only accomplish a limited range of tasks, and some are still supported by humans, their functionality will increase as they learn from more interactions.
Uses for bots
Bots promise to streamline interactions for any information-based organization that serves large numbers of people. While technology companies have collected customer data for decades, the federal government has collected citizen data for far longer: the decennial census is codified in Article I of the Constitution, and the Census Bureau first processed data by machine in 1890.
With the addition of a federal income tax in 1913, the amount of information collected has grown considerably. Bots could make filing taxes easier by customizing questions to each individual. Tax preparation software and federal e-filing use digital versions of forms, but adding an artificially intelligent bot could further enhance the process. Bots can support the collection of information by dramatically reducing physical and digital paperwork.
Bots could also facilitate access to information after it was collected. Rather than distributing personal information among multiple government agencies, a bot could bring it all together into a single interface. Accessing personal data in a single location would provide citizens with an up-to-date record so they could identify and easily correct errors. This would further facilitate transactions like applying for federal student aid, a passport, or a state-issued driver’s license. Government information technology platforms have had an imperfect track record, made evident by the launch of Healthcare.gov in 2013. However, a single interface could standardize online services for many different agencies.
Government resembles a technology company in many of its operations: both entities collect an immense quantity of information and offer services based on that information. As this quantity grows, bots can mediate its collection and retrieval. In the private sector, chat bots can more efficiently handle online sales and customer service. A similar interface for government services could reduce the number of steps required to file taxes, apply for federal student aid, or start a business.
Artificially intelligent bots are still in the early stages of commercial use, and like any technology, they are not a guaranteed success. Government use would require additional time to integrate bots into existing information technology systems. Despite technical hurdles and market uncertainties, the promise of more easily delivering services to millions of people is worth investigating.
Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies and holds the Douglas Dillon Chair. He is founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings and Editor-in-Chief of TechTank. He tweets @DarrWest