In the not-too-distant future, when you visit a government website, you may be able to talk naturally to a virtual digital assistant who can assist you in locating the information you are looking for — and even fill up some online forms for you.
Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan: What we are trying to do here is to create a new media. It goes beyond artificial intelligence and natural language processing.
The Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and Microsoft are currently exploring ways to develop a conversational computing platform using intelligent software programmes known as chatbots.
Announcing this at the World Cities Summit in Singapore recently, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, said this will help users access the most relevant services they require efficiently while making the best use of government resources.
For some time, IDA been experimenting with a chatbot called Ask Jamie to help its web users find the information they are looking for.
“I believe there are more intuitive ways for government services to be delivered to our citizens. Everybody expects responsive and personalised interactions in real time. Now the question is, why shouldn’t the same capability be available for government?” said Dr Balakrishnan.
The plan for this will be rolled out in three stages.
The first will involve chatbots drawing on a stored database to answer simple factual questions from users, whether spoken or via text input, about selected public services.
In phase two, this capability will be enhanced to help the public complete simple tasks and transactions within selected government websites.
In the final phase, chatbots are expected to respond to even more personalised queries from users.
In a statement, Microsoft said the Conversations as a Platform initiative represents a fundamental shift in technology which combines the power of human language, artificial intelligence and machine learning, allowing users to get information and complete transactions quickly.
Ask Jamie@IDA, now available on the IDA website, is a precursor to the intelligent chatbots that will come our way in future.
The chatbot initiative offers a hint of bigger things to come.
“What we are trying to do here is to create a new media,” said Dr Balakrishnan. “It goes beyond artificial intelligence and natural language processing. It requires a reorganisation of government, the way information is packaged and how we engage with our citizens.”
Outlining Singapore’s approach to dealing with the challenges brought on by the digital revolution, Dr Balakrishnan stressed the need to remain open and adaptable to changes.
“We’ve got to stop looking for final solutions. In this day and age, it’s an ever-evolving set of interim solutions whatever the problem is, and this requires a transformation within government.”
Smart Cities innovations around the World
Several other speakers at the conference also discussed ways in which their governments and organisations were developing Smart City innovations.
First Mayor of Hamburg, Mr Olaf Scholz: Germany is also looking at digital solutions to widen education options and ease transport woes in major growing cities like Hamburg.
Mr Olaf Scholz, First Mayor of Hamburg, said in this highly-digital world, being open and transparent with government data will help to increase the public’s trust.
“It helps to improve democracy if people are allowed to see what information the government has and is using.”
He cited Germany’s acceptance of refugees as one example where information is being shared freely with citizens.
In Hamburg, which is receiving some 50,000 refugees, the citizens are engaging in conversations through social networks with the government to accept these people and find new places to house them.
Germany is also looking at digital solutions to widen education options and ease transport woes in major growing cities like Hamburg, said Mr Scholz.
Over in South Korea, the government is encouraging greater public participation in its decision-making by allowing citizens to cast a vote through a smartphone app on a variety of issues, said Mr Kim Chang-Beom, Ambassador for International Relations Seoul Metropolitan Government.
“This has proven to be an effective way to gather real-time opinions from citizens. Users can also register a complaint or provide feedback to the government using an app.”
Mr Anil Menon, President of the Smart+Connected Communities initiative at Cisco, said the development of Smart Cities cannot be left solely to the industry.
Mr Anil Menon from Cisco: Smart Cities are too important to be left to technologists.
“Smart Cities are too important to be left to technologists. Progress is not a straight line. To succeed it requires visionary leadership and we need to start thinking globally, with global standards and smart regulations.”
He said that apart from government and industry partnerships, labour unions too need to be involved and shed their protective mindset as the world moves into an increasingly borderless and globalised economy.
The biennial World Cities Summit is a platform for government leaders and industry experts to address liveable and sustainable city challenges, share integrated urban solutions and forge new partnerships.
About 110 mayors and city leaders representing 103 cities from 63 countries and regions around the world attended this year’s event, which was held from 10-14 July at Marina Bay Sands.