No more hours on hold or queueing to see a welfare officer: that's the future the Department of Human Services is working towards, with a little help from Watson and Cortana.
The department recently went live with an internal virtual assistant it has dubbed 'Roxy', powered by Microsoft's Cortana technology.
It uses elements of the Microsoft framework like Luis, the natural language classifier, to help claims processing officers solve problems.
The officers give Roxy a call through a Skype for Business session and ask her for help, which she provides using data from the department's policies and procedures, contained in its operational blueprint.
Prior to Roxy, claims processing officers would have to call human experts for assistance. Now, instead of dealing with all levels of queries, those officers are only brought in to handle the really complex issues.
Alongside teaching Roxy everything in its operational blueprint, DHS also fed the virtual assistant all the questions and answers passed between claims officers and experts over a three-month period.
According to DHS CTO Charles McHardie, Roxy is currently answering 78 percent of questions being put to her by claims officers.
"It's been quite successful reducing their workload," he told iTnews.
"We see that as a core component of claims processing, whether it's with WPIT [DHS' $1 billion welfare payments infrastructure transformation] or in the department."
Roxy has ticked the box for internal viability, and in February the department will know whether the same can be said for the use of virtual assistants in customer service.
It currently has two separate IBM Watson-powered virtual assistants for front-line services running in test mode, which it plans to set live in two months.
One will support the national disability insurance scheme. McHardie and team started playing around with this virtual assistant about a year ago after visiting IBM in the United States.
The NDIS virtual assistant will give customers a clear idea of what it means to join the scheme, whether they are eligible, and what it will mean for them in the future, McHardie said.
The second Watson-based assistant DHS is currently tinkering with is for one of the first tranches in the mammoth WPIT program, involving students.
It is intended to help students make a decision about whether to attend university or TAFE, by guiding them through the process of qualifying for an Austudy or youth allowance payment, and what they need to do to lodge a claim.
McHardie and team are hoping that by putting a virtual assistant at the front-line of customer service, long wait times will be significantly reduced, and workers will be freed to handle more complex problems.
He tentatively forecasts the virtual assistants could reduce workloads by at least 20 percent.
But the big difference between internal and external virtual assistants - and the main reason the two Watson assistants are still in testing and the Cortana helper is live - is that there's a lot more at stake when unleashing this type of technology to the public.
"It's a little more tricky because [customers] could ask a question in a myriad of ways; it's a less controlled environment," McHardie said.
"Our vision is that in the future when you first interact with DHS, it's with a virtual assistant: you outline your circumstance - I've just lost my job, my mother has died, I've just been kicked out of home - so the virtual assistant will need to be able to deal with many elements of context.
"When you unleash [this] to 24 million Australian citizens, you need a better level of assurance [than you do internally]."