As artificial intelligence (AI) improves at an exponential rate, robots are performing a wide range of tasks once thought to be reserved for humans.
This is a big worry to labour movements around the world as it might have an impact on their employment, but cognitive technologies are already having a profound effect on government work, with more dramatic effects to come.
And the public sector is seeking and finding applications to improve services.
It is possible that cognitive technologies could eventually revolutionise every facet of government operations.
Over time, AI will spawn massive changes in the public sector, transforming how government employees get work done, according to the latest report titled “AI-augmented government: Using cognitive technologies to redesign public sector work” drafted by the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
“It’s likely to eliminate some jobs, lead to the redesign of countless others, and create entirely new professions.”
In the near term, the Deloitte Centre for Government Insights’ analysis suggests, large government job losses are unlikely, adding “but cognitive technologies will change the nature of many jobs—both what gets done and how workers go about doing it—freeing up to one-quarter of many workers’ time to focus on other activities.”
Today, the typical government worker allocates her labour among a “basket” of tasks.
By breaking jobs into individual activities and analysing how susceptible each is to automation, you can project the number of labour hours that could be freed up or eliminated.
The Deloitte Centre for Government Insights analysis found that millions of working hours each year (out of some 4.3 billion worked total) could be freed up today by automating tasks that computers already routinely do.
“Staff resources could be freed up to do real work, with people having time to focus on creative projects and deal directly with clients and customers,” says Dr. Peter Viechnicki and William D. Eggers, the authors of the report.
Cognitive technologies are already having a profound impact on government work, with more dramatic effects to come.
“AI-based applications could potentially reduce backlogs, cut costs, overcome resource constraints, free workers from mundane tasks, improve the accuracy of projections, inject intelligence into scores of processes and systems, and handle many other tasks humans can’t easily do on our own, such as predicting fraudulent transactions, identifying criminal suspects via facial recognition, and sifting millions of documents in real time for the most relevant content,” the centre argued in the report.
The potential benefits of AI for government are clear. The next question, then, is which functions should be automated or made “smart,” and to what degree?
- Relieve. Technology takes over mundane tasks, freeing workers for more valuable work. The relieve approach allows the government to focus on reducing backlogs or shifting workers to higher value tasks.
- Split up. This approach involves breaking a job into steps or pieces and automating as many as possible, leaving humans to do the remainder and perhaps supervise the automated work. The difference between relieve and split up is that with the latter, not all tasks given to computers are routine, mundane tasks.
- Replace. In this approach, technology is used to do an entire job once performed by a human. The post office uses handwriting recognition to sort mail by ZIP code; some machines can process 18,000 pieces of mail an hour.
- Augment and extend. In this approach, technology makes workers more effective by complementing their skills. This is the true promise of AI: humans and computers combining their strengths to achieve faster and better results, often doing what humans simply couldn’t do before. When technology is designed to augment, humans are still very much in the driver’s seat. Machine learning is assisting police with investigations, showing detectives in Chicago and Los Angeles real-time lists of license plates linked to suspects.
The Deloitte Centre for Government Insights warns that cognitive technologies aren’t the solution to every problem. It argues that each government agency should evaluate the business case for each technology individually.
“As cognitive technologies advance in power, government agencies will need to bring more creativity to workforce planning and work design. Mission, talent, and technology leaders must work together to analyse the issues and opportunities presented by cognitive technologies and propose a path forward,” concluded the report.
It added that policymakers, too, face choices about how to apply these technologies.
“These choices will determine whether workers are marginalised or empowered and whether their organisations are focused more on creating value or on cutting costs. There’s no single set of correct choices. But when government leaders weigh cognitive technologies, they should consider which choices will maximise the public value for taxpayers.”