Whatever your instincts about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) – excitement or apprehension – there is no doubt that such is the pace of advances in this field, we’d all better start getting used to an idea that is rapidly becoming a reality. From healthcare to the law, the service sector to transport, the future seems to be here already.
Rob Bollard, for one, is parked firmly in the “excitement” camp. The general manager of Business Futures at IP Australia, he has championed the use of AI and cognitive computing as a means of boosting efficiency and, at the same time, enhancing the customer experience. “Anything new or different obviously provokes a reaction of some sort,” he concedes. “But I am genuinely excited about the opportunities, not only for our organisation but for other government departments and the private sector as well. We want to make the experience customers have with us as easy as possible – AI helps us do that.”
Intellectual and practical
IP Australia is Australia’s government agency that administers intellectual property rights and legislation relating to patents, trademarks, designs and plant breeder’s rights. In other words, it seeks to provide an effective legal framework for the country’s innovators to protect their ideas, thus enabling a secure environment for investment in innovation.
Last year, IP Australia trialled a new capability from IBM called Watson – software that analyses different data and provides responses with intelligent reasoning. Already used in medical research, finance, banking and many other sectors, Watson works by digesting vast amounts of information to provide insights to people by answering questions with intelligent reason. The capability was developed in 12 weeks in order to support a working prototype of a user scenario to demonstrate how the tool could benefit the organisation in the future. For example, by assessing potential word trade marks against relevant case law.
“There were a number of reasons for this early adoption of AI,” reveals Bollard. “We have a highly strategic and open-minded director general, Patricia Kelly, who really embraces and leads innovation. She’s looking to see how we can be more innovative in the way we conduct our business and, like every other government department, how we need to transform our service delivery to optimise outcomes for both our customers and our organisation.”
AI, he continues, enables the organisation to meet rising citizen expectations despite tight cost constraints. “Obviously, there are challenges in terms of maximising the service delivery within a paradigm of reduced cost structures, and dovetailing into that is the fact our citizens have higher expectations around government service delivery,” he says. “They expect a service that will meet their needs and deliver timely and quality responses every time – and rightly so. We’re moving from a nine-to-five operation to 24/7 and they want a service delivery that is much more citizen-centric and tailored to their needs. We see AI as a real platform for delivering this experience for our customers.”
Helping them in this mission was the fact that the days of interacting in person with a physical office appear to be long gone. The vast majority of their customers – some 98% – now go online for their service requests. “This is an incredibly powerful platform for developing technology solutions – including cognitive options – to assist them in making their life easier, and at the same time ensure our service becomes more timely and efficient,” he says.
Silencing the sceptics
Notwithstanding Bollard’s skills as a spokesman for AI’s benefits, there remained some unbelievers about this course of travel. Perhaps this was inevitable – any transformation is disruptive – but Bollard says it isn’t insurmountable. Keeping an open dialogue at all times to reassure and support people during any change is vital and can turn unbelievers into believers.
“We’re quite a conservative organisation by nature and this means different ways of doing things do present their challenges,” he says. “So, we did quite a lot of work around showing how cognitive and AI options are already at work in different industries. We also had to make sure people understood this isn’t something that is happening overnight – it’s an ongoing journey, one of discovery, and we will have some great successes and make mistakes along the way that we will learn from. But at the end of the day, this is a direction that will benefit the organisation and our customers in the long term.”
He also says the adoption of AI involves the same approach as other transformations that are common in both the public and private sectors. “You really need to understand what you are trying to achieve and what your end-goal is,” he says. “Start with small steps which take you along the path to a successful outcome. A lot of organisations think the cognitive solutions will come in and tomorrow every problem will be solved, but it’s not like that at all. With AI it’s a journey that takes time and you have to invest that time and effort. It is just like any transformation – you need that strategic end-goal and a road map of how to get there.”
So, what comes next? When he is not at his desk in IP Australia’s Canberra headquarters, Bollard can often be found out and about on the circuit, advocating AI’s potential across government. He is convinced there remains much more to come from this still emerging technology.
“I’m very optimistic about how AI can work,” he concludes. “This is because it is really the foundation for delivering a citizen-centric and tailored solution to customers. Using the data that’s available and using the technology that’s coming on stream can really help people in their day-to-day lives. Many of our customers haven’t had much experience with intellectual property before – like a small business owner who is looking to register a trademark for the first time. This technology can offer the potential for a tailored, real-time, 24/7 service and make it as easy as possible for them, providing all the information in one interaction rather than having to go via separate organisations. Who can argue with that?”
The Centre for Public Impact is investigating the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) can improve outcomes for citizens.
Are you working in government and interested in how AI applies to your practice? Or are you are an AI practitioner who thinks your tools can have an application in government? If so, please get in touch.
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