Federal leaders reflect on the rise of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as a disruptive force within federal government. The coming of AI will bring with it new opportunities around mission realization, operational efficiency and citizen service. But AI also presents new challenges, including complex workforce issues and questions around ethics and governance.

In our recent podcast series, Exploring AI in Government, Accenture Federal Services brought together top thought leaders from within government and the technology sector to explore the impact of AI in the federal space. A number of common themes emerged around the role of AI in federal agencies; the likely impact of this transformative technology; and emerging best practices for federal agencies looking to leverage this powerful new capability.

AI in government

There is a growing consensus that AI can be used to make government more effective and efficient. Federal leaders from a range of agencies, all with differing perspectives, share a sense of excitement around the ability of AI to augment their workforce in order to accomplish the mission faster and more successfully.

However, how big an impact remains an open question. According to Dr. Tim Persons, GAO’s chief scientist, “I think we're still underestimating how much we're going to get out of [AI] over time as it evolves. I think it's going to surprise us . . . we're going to look back and say, I can't believe we used to do things that way.”

At the same time, the federal government’s unique mission and available datasets can make it an innovation leader around AI. As Dr. Gil Altervotiz, Director of AI at the Department of Veterans Affairs, explains, “I see a future where the very best researchers in the AI area are drawn here by the mission to help serve our veterans.”

What’s clear is that federal AI is increasingly emerging as a powerful new resource that can stand alongside government employees and contractors. Feds are looking to AI to help streamline business functions – an approach industry has already embraced via robotic process automation or RPA – and then to utilize those improved internal processes to deliver better citizen experiences.

“Right now, we're looking at things like robotic process automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain -- all these things you're starting to see now in the private sector,” says Craig Fischer, Innovation Program Manager for the Bureau of the Fiscal Service. “We're asking the question: Where can these technologies improve the way that we are managing our finances? We're going to make sure that the financial information that we provide to folks is accurate…and that we are providing our taxpayers with a modern, seamless and secure experience.”

While many recognize the potential, however, questions linger around the actual implementation of AI in the federal space.

“There remains a lot of confusion about what it even is, and how to put it into place. It is unfortunately too often considered a type of black box…as just a learning algorithm,” says Dr. Eric Daimler, a former Office of Science & Technology Policy lead for AI in the Obama administration. That is changing, however. “Every month we're going to be more acquainted with the ramifications of this technology, and the interactions of those technologies with other developments in the computer ecosystem. That is going to be a continual conversation.”

To help further that conversation, let’s consider some of the key insights that emerged in our discussions with federal leaders.

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