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The Federal Chatbot Landscape

October 26, 2018

Chatbots have officially descended upon us in the commercial marketplace, aiding consumers in banking, retail, education, and healthcare, among others. Even though they don’t appear to have (yet) fully entered the DC market, those working in the region have undoubtedly experienced interacting with them outside of the office. These conversational pop-ups - driven by artificial intelligence and not humans - are almost unavoidable, depending on which after-hours URL is visited. 
 

Although the natural fit for chatbots is in the private sector, do they also have a home in public service? Specifically, within the federal government? Before we answer this question, some notable observations:
 

  1. NASA and DHS appear to be the federal government’s chatbot innovators: Take a visit to this link or this one, and you’ll get a chance to meet ‘ROV-E’ and ‘Emma’ – two chatbots that have gone live on NASA’s and DHS’ websites. ROV-E fields questions from users in both chat/text format AND voice – tackling one of these individually is hard, let alone doing both simultaneously (although, who would expect anything less from such a prestigious and envelope-pushing organization?).

    As for ROV-E’s federal counterpart, Emma, she is equally impressive – not only is she bilingual in both English and Spanish, but she made her initial debut in December 2015. Clearly, NASA and DHS appear to be the federal innovators and leaders on the chatbot front.
     

  2. The topic is actively on the radar of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Over the summer, the VA released an RFI seeking input from industry on their proposal to use artificial intelligence for enhanced veterans experience. As avid supporters of America’s veterans, we are excited to see AI applied on their behalf – successful AI and chatbot adoption could translate into so many benefits, such as:

    -  The ability for vets to receive faster, tailored answers to inquiries
    -  The removal of time and space barriers for vets who cannot contact the VA during core     
       vets.gov help desk hours
    - Creation of a 'one-stop-shop' that is able to field veteran questions spanning all of the VA's     'verticals' - everything from housing, to education, to insurance, and beyond.
     

  3. The IRS is also investigating use of chatbots to ease the pain points associated with tax filing season: Who has it worse – tax payers unable to get immediate answers to their pressing and critical questions for tax filing season OR the IRS customer service representatives who, according to a Nextgov report, were so overburdened by their customer service backlog that it took them an average of 17 minutes to field a tax payer’s call? Whatever the answer, the IRS is actively investigating the use of chatbots and other forms of artificial intelligence to help – a win-win for both the tax-paying party and the customer service party, should the IRS successfully execute their AI vision.
     

Upon reflecting on the above list while considering it is not necessarily an exhaustive one (these are just the chatbot initiatives we are familiar with), we have decided to characterize the chatbots’ future in DC by re-using a phrase from Dr. John Kaufhold in 2014 that described his sentiments surrounding deep learning at that time: cautious optimism in results without reckless assertions about the future. Perhaps four years from now, we can look back on chatbots the same way we can now look back on where deep learning has come from four years ago.

As for our specific work in chatbots, we have partnered with Bitext to deliver their bot middleware solution to the DC market – a capability that bolsters the chatbots’ human-like qualities and behavior in multiple languages. Imagine an Emma or ROV-E that can converse more naturally in their ‘native’ English and Spanish, or even extend their fluency to any of the world’s most spoken languages – we help chatbot developers build solutions that do just that.

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