This article, Accelerating, scaling and democratising the use of AI and IA for the Public Sector to navigate the new normal, was first published by OpenGov on 10 Mar 2021.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Intelligent Automation (IA), not only in Singapore but for most of the world have been around for some time. Most government agencies have adopted some form of AI and IA in their respective operational processes. More recently, this adoption has been accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AI and IA are here and they are here to stay. Intelligent and automated transformation in the public sector will prove vital in providing citizens with a much more efficient and effective experience. The current challenge is integrating them into all service procedures and processes and how to contextualise, adapt and improve these technologies for specific agencies and functions.
A cornerstone for an organisation’s digital transformation, AI and IA can be used to automate programmes to ensure that some manual tasks no longer need to be done by people. This will allow staff to focus on other deliverables that need more human intervention, thus promoting productivity. For the public sector, AI and IA can provide efficiency and effectiveness – delivering citizen services cheaper and more quickly for a better overall experience for agencies and people.
However, the public sector is being held back from reaping the full benefits of AI and Intelligent Automation due to unfamiliarity and the lack of skillset within organisations. To harness the full potential of AI and Intelligent Automation, the public sector must scale up AI implementation and democratise its corporate function.
This was the focal point of the discussion during the OpenGovLive! Virtual Breakfast Insight: AI and Intelligent Automation for Public Sector as a Key to Success in the New Normal on 10 March with digital executives from a wide range of Public Sector agencies from Singapore.
Mohit Sagar: Humans and robots work hand in hand more in the new normal
To kickstart the session, Mohit Sagar, Group Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief at OpenGov Asia reiterated the fact AI and IA have has been around for several years now. In fact, both the private and public sectors have been deploying them. Dealing with new technology with far-reaching consequences always comes with the risk of failure and it was no different with these as well. At the same time, however, there was no great pressure to adopt them quickly or comprehensively.
Then, COVID-19 came in and drastically accelerated the need for rapid and ubiquitous adoption. Mohit strongly believes that if organisations did not bring in AI and IA it would have been impossible to cope with the pandemic.
Left with little choice, most governments included automation and AI in their processes leading to greater human-robotic interaction in the new normal. Mohit observed that with these large-scale deployments and the pressing need, inhibition or the scare-factor surrounding these technologies is starting to diminish – but still has a long way to go.
The only way automation and AI to be fully embraced is to democratise them. This implies that everyone in the organisation, even those who do not know how to code, are included on this journey. But what it also means is that when a digital workforce has been set to work, the human resource must be reassigned to tasks that require human intelligence and response.
It is critical that organisations help staff understand that AI and IA are tools for them to use and not something that is going to replace them. This will create an environment of acceptance and openness to genuinely try new things. Of course, this is far easier said than done.
Closing his presentation, Mohit emphasised that this was a journey and organisations must find the right partners to help them implement the right automation strategies – partners who have been down this road and who know what needs to be done.
Ravi Bedi: Humans enabled machines, and machines augment human beings.
COVID-19 has ramped up the collaboration between humans and machines. This was the focal point that Ravi Bedi, Head & Practice Lead, AI-Led NEXT Solutions, NCS Group discussed with the distinguished delegates from the Singapore public sector.
Ravi acknowledged that COVID-19 was a significant catalyst for automation. Further, he added that this is a strong opportunity for the public and private sectors to work collaboratively. The need of the hour is a roadmap that brings AI and IA to every citizen in the most natural way possible. AI and automation must not be seen or be a hindrance to people but should become a positive part of their daily lives.
Statistics he provided prove that Singapore was open to the idea of automation prior to the pandemic. Without a doubt, in this post-Covid era, deployment of AI and IA will go up leaps and bounds. Not just because of the sense of urgency to deal with the current pandemic but to also prepare for the next possible global crisis
Further, recent budget allocations and programmes in the country show that the nation continues to embrace the idea of AI and the fact that it will play a critical part in the recovery of the economy in the long-term.
Not surprisingly, only 1/8 of the world’s governments have not implemented some form of digital transformation. Contrarily, after much trial-and-error by agencies, some have found that AI and IA have not lived up to their promise. Known as AI quicksand, Ravi explained, this phenomenon is a function of premature experimental scaling – most often resulting in failure.
It was vital, Ravi opined, that delegates reflect on how to come together as a society and make organisations and governments settle on a common narrative essential to this transformation. Going further, Ravi added that innovation diffusion must start at the school level.
Ravi conceded that the public sector does not lack ideas, it lacks execution. They fear deploying initiatives in a wider, premeditated manner. Additionally, they do not have a democratised method of implementing procedures. Such constraints are what inhibits the public sector to meet the expectations that citizens and the public have today.
He stressed that AI and IA initiatives are not a competition between humans and robots. It is about scaling and evolution. Humans must continue what they know to scale and machines must also do the same depending on what is given to them. Humans naturally lead, create, judge and improvise, while machines transact and scale, predict and scale and then evolve. The missing element or efficiency is what is being endeavoured in a human-machines alliance. Humans enable machines and machines augment human beings.
Ravi closed his presentation by saying that the key piece is not what is being done as data scientists, engineers or digital transformation heads. The critical area is for organisations to determine the missing middle area in this human-machine alliance by distinguishing the roles of humans as well as the roles of machines within the organisation.
Pascale Fung: Governments must incorporate AI and IA to deliver services amid the pandemic
Following Ravi’s presentation, Pascale Fung, Director, Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAiRE), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) shared her perspectives on the discussion at hand.
She started by talking about the many initiatives that the Hong Kong Government has launched such as the promotion of masks, lockdowns, testing, contact tracing and vaccination. HKUST has been at the forefront of innovation for pandemic control measures.
To help governments to persuade the public of the efficacy of mask-wearing, they developed a visualisation tool illustrating the positive effect of mask-wearing and stopping the spread of the virus. To help scientists accelerate vaccine development, they also created a data-analytics tool for vaccines to match the virus’ sequences for worldwide access.
They also have a fast COVID-19 testing kit, providing results in record time, which is the first-ever in the world. A contact tracing app quarantine was implemented with their support.
A more complex area to address was mental well being. Due to the prolonged quarantine and isolation measure, citizens’ mental health has been of much concern – not only in Hong Kong but across the world. To address this, they designed an AI-driven virtual assistant to talk to citizens in isolation to gauge mental health, deep learning and respond with empathy. Their AI component helps people in quarantine to connect with others.
As a closing challenging, she exhorted the government executives to make use of available tech such as AI and intelligent automation to fight COVID-19 and manage its aftermath.
After the engaging and informative presentations by the speakers, the session transitioned to an interactive discussion with polling questions. The first question dealt with what the primary objective of AI and IA strategies were for the delegates.
Over 65% of the delegates said that business process enhancement is their primary objective. According to one of the directors from JTC Corporation, they are still in the early stages of their AI journey and they are in the process of enhancing the functionality of their work using these technologies.
A delegate from the Ministry of Health said that cost reduction is at the helm of their priorities because of the rising healthcare costs during the pandemic. The GovTech Singapore representative said that applying AI and IA is a journey that requires financial capacities to extract value from its usage. They too felt that finding the right partner is a challenge. Lastly is their mindset towards utilising the technologies.
The next polling inquired about the organisations’ target for the contribution of AI to their process efficiencies. More than half of the delegates (55%) said there is no real target as they are in their early stages in the journey but they are trying to improve the usage of AI. Just under a quarter of the participants confirmed that 15%-30% of their process will be efficient because of AI.
The audience next discussed the challenges they encounter when using AI and automation. About 87% of the delegates say that the lack of properly skilled teams is the most common challenge in implementing AI strategies.
Ravi agreed that not knowing your data when using AI is a problem. The industry should be helping agencies from a data gathering and understanding perspective. One participant from the health sector said while data is available, the task of harmonising the data throughout the organisation and different institutions is challenging, along with the scaling of administrative and clinical processes.
Ravi acknowledged the humans tend to gravitate to what is urgently needed. He also noted that a partnership between the right service provider and an agency is the key element of a smart relationship.
Just under half (45%) of the delegates say that crowdsourcing from employees and customers is the way to go in terms of how organisations should gather ideas for applying emerging AI tech in new ways to solve business problems.
The session ended with the closing remarks by Ravi Bedi. He emphasised the crux of the issue – people are the beneficiaries of AI and IA.
If feedback can be institutionalised and involve the citizens more comprehensively, it will be better for the entire process. He agreed that guidance should start from the institutions and ministries. However, to scale and democratise the use of AI and Intelligent Automation, agencies must understand that partnership with experts is the way forward. This will help crystalise roles that will be vital in their journey towards automation.
He invited the delegates to reach out to their team for advice and to explore ways they could collaborate on their AI/IA journey.