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Smart Citizens: Artificial Intelligence & Citizen Engagement

This article is based on introductory report on artificial intelligence and citizen engagement for UNDP Innovation Unit authored by Mohsen Gul and Michelle Kuo. All rights reserved with the authors.

Global advances in the economic, social and technological spheres are not only creating emerging industries and new occupations, but also correspondingly shaping the expectations of new generations of citizens and transforming the way they function in the society (Bertucucci & Yemiai, 2000). The public service is not immune to these trends; the sector can be expected to feel the impact of these changes as fast as others, making it imperative that governments prepare to respond to these revolutionary developments (UNDP, 2015). In many countries, citizens are demanding more meaningful participation in the policy-making process, pushing administrations to open-up and collaborate (Lim, 2014). There is a need to evolve from New Public Management to New Public Passion models (UNDP, 2015).

World Development Report (World Bank, 2016) notes that digital technologies are transforming the worlds of business and service delivery. First generation technological applications have helped to improve citizens’ access to multiple public services, and the potential for digital social innovation to expand into broad participation in the design and delivery of various public services is growing. Rapid technological innovation and adoption by citizens and the private sector puts pressure on the public service to go much further in integrating new digital applications in policy analysis and design to enhance the public service experience (Bhatnagar, 2014). Further penetration of SMACs (social, mobile, analytic and cloud technologies), artificial intelligence (AI), 3D-printing, robotics, the Internet of Things, etc., will impact on how the public space will be organised and equipped in the future. UNDESA (2017) note that these emerging technologies should be adopted by considering their positive and negative impacts especially in low-income countries.

Mckinsey Report (2017) notes that many societies, in the North and in the South, are being disrupted by an increasingly coherent set of scientific and technological mutations. Artificial Intelligence (AI) already permeates many aspects of our lives. All over the world, AI systems filter email spam, recommend things for people to buy, provide legal advice on everything from parking tickets to asylum applications, and in some places, can determine whether you are paid a visit by the police. There is no universally agreed definition of AI. According to OECD (2016) and UNCTAD (2017), AI is defined as the ability of machines and systems to acquire and apply knowledge, and to carry out intelligent behaviour. This includes a variety of cognitive tasks (e.g. sensing, processing oral language, reasoning, learning, making decisions) and demonstrating an ability to move and manipulate objects accordingly. Intelligent systems use a combination of big data analytics, cloud computing, machine-to-machine communication and the Internet of Things (IoT) to operate and learn. AI is a software and generally algorithm based although its functions (e.g. talking or playing a game) need to be reflected by physical substance (such as robots). In this sense, AI is like a human brain. To date, AI development has been generally focused on a selection of specific domains as shown in Table 1 (ESCAP, 2017; PWC, 2017).

According to ESCAP (2017), AI can augment human capacity by processing and analysing large datasets much faster than humans. For instance, in medical care, AI may help analyse data of a large number individuals and identify patterns for disease diagnosis. In the legal sector, AI is being used to sift court documents and legal records for case-relevant information. In the automobile industry, AI-driven robots have been used on assembly lines. Furthermore, AI has the potential to change the way we live. The most quoted example is the autonomous or driverless car. According to PwC (2017), AI will have huge impacts on the following industries: healthcare; automotive; financial services; retail and consumer; technology, communications and entertainment; manufacturing; energy; and transport and logistics.

AI is also being used as key tool in the broader ‘civic technology’ goods and services. Mehr (2017) points out that many AI case studies in citizen services today fall into five categories: answering questions, filling out and searching documents, routing requests, translation, and drafting documents. These applications could make public services more efficient while freeing up more time to build better relationships with citizens. While citizen satisfaction with digital government offerings leaving much to be desired, AI may be one way to bridge the gap while improving citizen engagement and service delivery. Table 2 lists the possible government problems appropriate for AI applications (Mehr, 2017).

Artificial intelligence is not just limited to service applications. It can be used to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. UNDP (2017) identifies the potential of using Artificial Intelligence to help governments align their work better with the Sustainable Development Goals[1]. A promising endeavour is the use of AI to automate UNDP’s Rapid Integrated Assessment (RIA) – a tool that helps governments assess the alignment of national development plans and sectoral strategies with the 169 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals to determine a country’s readiness for implementation of the global development agenda. IBM Watson XPrize (2018) & IISD (Lebada, 2017) have listed some possible ways through which AI can contribute to attainment of the SDGs (Table 3).

[1] The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. These 17 goals ae ratified by 193 countries to achieve by the year 2030.

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