The urgency and risk in AI for public services

Opinion: There is no disputing the anxieties around artificial intelligence - in all its forms - but the pressures on the public sector demand that it move fast and collaborate effectively in getting to grips with the technology

It’s exciting to some, threatening to others, and a source of intrigued bewilderment to many, but artificial intelligence (AI) is on its way to UK public services.

Profile of humanoid robotAwareness is spreading of the pioneering ambitions of Aylesbury Vale Council, with its plan to harness Amazon’s Alexa AI system, the London Borough of Enfield, which is working on IPSoft’s Amelia virtual service agent and with Microsoft on a CitizenBot.

There are also anxieties over think tank Reform’s forecast that AI could replace 250,000 public sector jobs by 2030.

It all laid the ground for some fascinating presentations and lively debate at UKAuthority’s Rise of the Bots event. Views differed on where the potential benefits are strongest, and the dynamics of achieving them while dealing with the downsides. But several interesting ideas emerged to feed into how authorities should approach the change.

There was agreement that it would scare plenty of employees, and run into a sceptical attitude from some members of the public. But it was also seen as inevitable - and set to become an intrinsic element of the digital transformation which is a necessity for all public authorities.

Setting this in context, every significant stage in the take-up of digital technologies has prompted dissent from some quarters, and come with missteps and blunders that have made the benefits slow to materialise.

High stakes

But the stakes seem higher with AI. There are expectations that, within a few years, it will be taking on tasks that have been regarded as the exclusive province of the human mind. It can do a lot more than shuffling data and triggering simple tasks; it is going to add a new dimension to diagnosis, decision-making and planning to deal with major challenges.

The technology will impact even the top rungs of the professional ladder.

But it is largely untested, and that compounds the risk. With so many unknowns and grey areas the deployment could prove to be more hazardous than for any technology so far. There will be trial and error, and it will sometimes go wrong as it is extended to new uses. Expect a few public authorities to draw some unwelcome press reports along the way.

The usual inclination would be to proceed with caution. But the financial pressures on the public sector, and the demographic challenge, are increasing the demand for services and creating a strong sense of urgency for radical transformation. The potential of AI to take a big chunk out of operating costs will create a case to begin sooner rather than later.

Be brave

So authorities will have to be brave, accept the risk, do their best to keep it in proportion, and talk to each other - more than they do by habit - to understand what works and what fails.

It is going to be a bumpy ride, faster than the speed at which many feel comfortable, and needs a new level of collaboration to keep it on course.

AI could take public sector transformation further and deeper than anyone thought possible. Now is the time for public servants to grasp its potential and implications.

UKAuthority has prepared a detailed briefing paper from discussions at its Rise of the Bots event. Download the briefing paper here.

Due to demand UKAuthority is running a follow-up event - as ever, for the public sector only - on 14 November 2017 called Return of the Bots. Click here to book your place now