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A Bot Centric Future

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Craig Orgeron
November 27, 2017

There is intrigue often entwined in the pace with which certain technological breakthroughs advance and others whither. Gartner, the technology research and advisory firm, utilizes a methodology referred to as the “Hype Cycle” to predict how impactful emerging technologies will be within specific markets. Emerging technologies—such as blockchain—are showered with much attention, given the potential to upend traditional service delivery models. However, in many cases these technical advances fizzle, or dramatically under deliver on promised and predicted innovations. The rapid adoption of chatbots within the public sector offers more realistic efficiency gains to enhance citizen service. Chatbots, while not new, are utilized to conduct text or voice interactions, offer answers to queried information and fulfill transactions.

Writing in The Mercury News, Ethan Baron suggests the real battle of the bots is hyper-focused on the development of the virtual assistant, with their particular help bots — Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. Baron writes that while the functionality of these virtual assistants is rudimentary, the advancing pace of artificial intelligence and speech recognition will enable more robust service, pushing the four tech giants to battle in a market expected to grow to $12 billion by 2024. However, the election cycle in 2016 is what brought the mighty bot to the forefront of public discourse, ensuring a broader—though not a necessarily deeper—understanding of the profound influence of social media platforms. Emilio Ferrara, from the University of Southern California, writes in The Conversation of the impact of political conversations influenced by bots, developed by concealed groups with unidentified agendas. Ferrara’s research into the 2016 election cycle revealed that a significant portion of political content posted daily to social media is not created by human users. Instead, Ferrara writes that in the period spanning from mid-September through mid-October of 2016, nearly 20 percent of election-focused tweets were generated by bots — specifically, by social bots, amounting to at least four million election-related tweets, posted by more than 400,000 social bots.

While the technology itself advances, fundamental concerns are highlighted in both the anonymity of bot creators, and the influence bots can have in shaping public discourse. Saiph Savage, from West Virginia University, writes in The Conversation of a project in 2015 to develop and utilize Twitter bots to recruit humans to do social good for their community. Naming the project “Botivist,” Savage writes the effort sought to uncover if bots could recruit and convince individuals to contribute concepts about undertaking anti-corruption efforts, instead of only complaining about corruption. Savage notes Botivist was successful in boosting an individual’s desire to go beyond complaining about corruption, encouraging them to suggest ideas and share concerns. Harnessing social media platforms for issues of activism will inevitably circle back to the goals of the activist, either the individual or a collective entity, and the judgement of the effort — is it perceived as good or bad. To that end, the resent disclosure by Facebook that it believed Russian state actors purchased political ads during the 2016 election is widely viewed as bad, a negative outcome—election meddling—in allowing disinformation and misinformation to bloom on a social media platform.

Away from the glare of the political arena, government leaders have forged a path enabling the use of chatbots to answer questions, provide support and take payments. Dustin Haisler writes in Government Technology that enterprise chatbots will communicate via intelligence voice-based interfaces. Haisler outlines myriad ways chatbots will affect government, suggesting that increasingly civic services will be rendered without visiting a physical government building or website, thereby optimizing efficiency for customer service. Writing in Data-Smart City Solutions, Chris Bousquet writes of chatbots replacing traditional citizen interactions, accurately answering citizen inquires by accessing information from a knowledge base. And in a similar vein, Zack Quaintance, writing in Government Technology, notes chatbot development and use in city governments, designed to assist citizens fully utilize public services such as a city’s website, pothole reporting and open data. Quaintance describes chatbots recently in use among a diverse range of localities including Kansas City, Missouri.; North Charleston, South Carolina.; and Los Angeles.

Providing insight on the relevance and staying power of bots, John Herrman writing in New York Times Magazine suggests Amazon’s Echo squarely placed artificial intelligence on millions of household countertops. And while, into the near future, political social bots will continue to be the focus of the use of this technology, Herrman cites a 2016 essay by the New York-based think tank Data & Society, highlighting that “…governments and citizens must step in and consider the purpose—and future—of bot technology before manipulative anonymity becomes a hallmark of the social bot.” As Hermann aptly concludes, “social automation is both disruptive and revealing.” And, while chatbots aren’t exactly a novel technology, the advance of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing renders chatbots much more socially significant.

Author: Craig P. Orgeron, Ph.D. currently serves as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services (ITS) and Chief Information Officer for the State of Mississippi. [email protected]

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