Artificial Intelligence and automation: the future of government services

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The British government is keen to recognise the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in ensuring the long-term future success of UK industry. In line with this, it has acknowledged that one of its ‘grand challenges’ is putting the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution.

In fact, comments from Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond have suggested that large swathes of government activity will soon be performed by AI and automation to free up time for (human) civil servants. Automating some aspects of government jobs will result in savings and efficiencies. However, there are concerns that public sector workers will be at risk of losing their jobs to AI and automation in the next decade.

Automated civil servants

Think tank Reform estimated early last year that 250,000 of the UK’s five million public sector workers risk losing jobs to AI and automation in the next 15 years. Speaking to a House of Lords committee in 2017, Hammond said: “The government is looking at how it can apply artificial intelligence. There are very significant areas of government activity which involve relatively low-level decision-making which will be highly susceptible to AI, probably over a relatively short period of time, which does present the tantalising possibility of being able to drive some real productivity enhancement in the delivery of government processes.”

The truth is that automation in the public sector is already developing at a rapid pace. New initiatives range from implementing AI and automation into day-to-day bureaucratic tasks such as form-filling and applying for patents to using facial recognition technologies to verify the identity of individuals entering the UK.

But it’s time to stop viewing AI and automation as an existential threat to our livelihoods. Far from replacing people, AI and automation will transform the workplace as menial tasks, and some non-routine jobs, are digitalised through AI and process automation – enabling greater efficiency while taking away some of the strain of day-to-day tasks.

The new industrial revolution

In its industrial strategy report, the UK government rightly realised we are at “one of the most important, exciting and challenging times in the history of global enterprise.” Importantly, that report highlights that Britain is well-placed to benefit from this new Industrial Revolution.

This digital revolution will be powered by humans’ increasing reliance on AI and automation. Set to impact almost every sector of British industry, AI and automation is here to stay. Organisations are turning to digital transformation to boost innovation and enhance user experience – and AI and automation will play a major role in this change.

While some jobs may disappear or evolve along the road to automation, there is considerable opportunity for innovation and change. AI and automation can give government departments – both at the national and local level – much faster access to sophisticated insights. Combining this technology and big data will allow them to make better decisions more quickly for a greater number of citizens.

This ability to rapidly adapt to and drive new innovations is part of what allowed Britain to prosper and develop so quickly during the first industrial revolution. After all, as the government goes on to note in the industrial strategy report: “We are an open enterprising economy, built on invention, innovation and competition. […] We have a deserved reputation for being a dependable and confident place to do business, with high standards, respected institutions, and the reliable rule of law. We have achieved near historic levels of employment. We are a crossing point for the world because of our geographic position, the English language, our strong ties, our openness to ideas and our vibrant culture.”

Capitalising on AI and automation

Driving an automated future offers a wide range of benefits. Not least is the prospect of boosting productivity across all of Britain’s leading industries, from high-tech post-industrial manufacturing through to the creative industries sector.

The UK’s industrial strategy has already identified the four ‘grand challenges’ in the years ahead as artificial intelligence and big data; clean growth; the future of mobility; and meeting the needs of an ageing society.

Astute investments in AI and automation can enable huge productivity boosts. UK consumers are already beginning to recognise that more organisations are embracing this technology and the advantages it can offer – including within the public sector. In fact, after surveying 2,000 UK consumers on their attitudes towards AI and automation in government last year, OpenText found that two thirds of UK citizens (66 per cent) believe this technology will be introduced into government services within 20 years, with 16 per cent claiming that this could happen in the next two years.

No fear for AI in government

The same poll revealed less fear and uncertainty about the introduction of AI and automation in government than many headlines suggest. The majority of those surveyed were not concerned about the implementation of this technology in government, with over a quarter (26 per cent) going as far as claiming AI and automated technologies would be able to make better decisions than most elected representatives – though they would prefer for final decisions to be made by a human.

Many respondents recognised the immediate benefits of the technology. A fifth (20 per cent) felt that updating processes by bringing in AI and automation would lead to less admin and form filling. Additionally, 24 per cent pinpointed ‘reduced waiting times’ as a major advantage while 19 per cent thought that there would be fewer errors in government as a result of the effective implementation of AI and automation.

This research shows increasing acceptance of AI and automation as a method to improve services but Britain still has some way to go to fully embrace its potential. The UK ranked lowest (16 per cent) across the countries surveyed when asked if AI and automated technology would be working in government in the next five years, showing more hesitance around its uptake than countries such as France (24 per cent), the Netherlands (28 per cent) and the USA (22 per cent).

AI and automation will transform the workplace and bring a wide range of benefits to all sectors, including the public sector. With the potential to increase the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of a wide range of government services, AI and automated technologies cannot be ignored. While the technology already exists, the key challenge over the next few years will be gaining trust – amongst both public sector employees and British citizens.

Mark Baillie, director, public sector, UK & Ireland, OpenText
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