If you were to choose a job suited for an anarchist, government minister wouldn’t spring to mind. But Audrey Tang takes a different view: “I’m a ‘conservative anarchist’,” explains the Digital Minister of Taiwan. “I prefer not to give or take orders”.
Instead, she tries to inspire government to use tech in radical ways – from virtual reality government to autonomous robots fixing public infrastructure. “I absorb all the risk, and career public servants – if they come up with the innovation – can take all the credit”, she says.
Tang doesn’t run a formal Ministry, she has 32 representatives from each Ministry seconded to her team. She works with them to build tech and show them what they can do. “If I want to demonstrate the idea of radical transparency or… virtual reality deliberation, I just take an afternoon and code it up,” she says. Tang shared her vision with GovInsider of a government augmented by artificial intelligence.
AI powered government
“Do you mind if I record”? Usually this is a question GovInsider asks at the beginning of an interview, but in this case the Minister does. It’s part of her drive for “radical transparency”, where she publishes recordings online of every meeting she has, and holds regular “office hours” for people to ask her questions.
Taiwan faces big challenges – from climate change to social cohesion. Tang feels that AI can help tackle these challenges. For example, the island is regularly hit by cyclones and earthquakes. This puts strain on the water supply, with leaks occurring across the system.
The nation can build “self-repairing” utilities, she says. The government is using machine learning to track water pressure and detect leaks. “They can automatically inform the repair person that a new leak is occurring, and even suggesting the possible routes in fixing those repairs,“ she says.
This tech could also be linked with autonomous drones, she adds. “We’re not yet at a point where the pipes can literally summon a drone to heal itself, but we’re getting pretty close to that, because we can narrow down the damage area.”
Self-repairing utilities are part of Taiwan’s broader focus on using “machine intelligence”, Tang says. Already the island is working hard to build autonomous vehicles. The nation has loosened regulations to let developers test their ideas. It was the first jurisdiction to legalise experiments of driverless vehicles that can fly, swim and drive.
In February, it launched a dedicated testing area for self-driving cars. This is part of the Connected, Automated, Road-Test Lab which will look into other areas such as tech for green energy and energy efficiency. “It’s basically a kind of glimpse into the future, not just one or two technologies, but a different way of possibly living.”
Bringing people back together
What if AI can improve politics? Tang has built an AI platform, vTaiwan, to analyse online discussions and show which topics are most contentious. “The idea is that you can see the sentiments of your fellow citizens and see where people cluster, and what are the most divisive and most consensual points,” she says.
She uses this tool to moderate debates between civil servants, citizens, businesses and NGOs. Participants can agree or disagree with each other, but cannot directly reply to others’ comments. “People contribute to it, but they cannot subtract from it by making personal attacks and such,” Tang says. “The great thing about that is that it is a troll-proof way to get people sharing their sentiments.”
The government is using this tool to debate foreign policies. It is gathering public opinion on US-Taiwan relations on trade, technology, defence and immigration. “Whenever we get sufficient people into this kind of intelligence, it seems as though people can collectively find innovations in policies that satisfies everybody’s collective feelings without sacrificing anybody.”
Virtual Reality Government
Virtual reality can also transform government, Tang believes, allowing citizens to get a better understanding of a policy. During a recent petition on marine conservation parks, participants were able to see how the marine life is at risk. “We really can’t have a discussion underwater, it’s just not possible. That’s why VR is really useful.”
“We can’t really have a discussion underwater… that’s why VR is really useful”
Whether it’s underwater or on a remote island, virtual reality creates shared perspectives. It gets people “into the same space in their mind and then feel the solidarity of being in the same space and meeting eye-to-eye, but in places where it was previously impossible to do so”.
Tang believes that its most important for people to have a common set of facts and an understanding of the issue. This is where open data comes in. Every year, the government releases troves of public sector information during Taiwan’s annual Presidential Hackathon. This is “to make sure that across sectors, people have the same data-based conversation”. It is also encouraging local governments to use open data to negotiate for resources with the central government.
Taiwan is not a member of the global Open Government Partnership, but Tang attended the annual OGP Summit last month as an “observer”. Taiwan follows the rules of the organisation, publishing its own ‘action plan’ to make itself more transparent.
As global liberalism is in retreat, Tang is standing strong – wearing a UN branded t shirt and proclaiming commitment to the Open Government Partnership. Ironically, Taiwan is not a member of either, but that doesn’t seem a problem for Tang.
She is probably the only Digital Minister in the world to work without a Ministry, and this ‘anarchist’ believes in working with others to inspire them and let them take the credit. While she doesn’t want to hold authority, she believes that structures, sharing and power of tech can transform government for the better.