The Department of Human Services will soon begin a fresh drive to embed artificial intelligence deeper within its operations, but a production deployment of IBM’s Watson technology is now uncertain.
The department recently revealed it is piecing together an executive level two (EL2) team within its CIO group to lead a software-based infrastructure transformation.
The team is being given a wide remit, championing everything from platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) adoption to automation and orchestration, and the potential of big data.
However, the team also has an additional role: to “stretch boundaries further through proactive research and analysis of ways to introduce artificial and cognitive intelligence into the current DHS operating model".
At the end of last year, the department revealed a series of early projects designed to put virtual assistants based on Microsoft Cortana and IBM Watson technology through their paces.
It successfully deployed an internally-focused assistant called Roxy, which is underpinned by Cortana. It is used by claims processing officers to understand departmental policies and procedures, and means human experts only need to handle the most complicated internal queries.
At the same time, the department said it had two IBM Watson-powered virtual assistants under test that it hoped to use for frontline services.
One assistant promised to test eligibility for the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) while a second could help students work out if they qualified for an Austudy or youth allowance payment.
It had been hoped at the time that the two Watson-powered assistants would be put into production around February of this year.
But the future of Watson at the department is now uncertain, with a spokesperson revealing that a decision on the IBM technology is yet to be made.
“The trials of Watson and other cognitive technologies have demonstrated the potential of the technology,” the spokesperson told iTnews.
“This is an emerging field and the department will continue to consider a range of options before making a decision.”
Asked specifically how this would affect the two trial virtual assistants, and whether the timeframe for their proposed introduction had been too ambitious, the spokesperson declined to comment further.
For now, the department has refocused its efforts around how AI and cognitive technology “can be used to assist staff internally”, suggesting more work is required before it moves forward with externally-facing bots.
It is pleased with the progress of the Cortana-powered Roxy assistant, which the department’s spokesperson reiterated had been successful.
The agency also has not ruled out trials of robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent process automation (IPA) technology, which is finding favour among large organisations like Telstra, CBA and NBN Co.