The recent announcement by Dubai government of its first cognitive computing service provides a glimpse into the future: a cognitive agent that is able to interact with residents, citizens and others to provide advice on business licensing in the Emirate of Dubai.

Cognitive systems are able to replicate many human faculties, such as the ability to speak, understand unstructured data such as images or voice, and derive insights from large volumes of data.  They are based on artificial intelligence and machine learning; and, through the advent of cloud computing, have now become a capability that is broadly available to both private and public sectors.  For example, IBM, Microsoft, Google and others now offer cognitive capabilities from the Cloud.

The value of Cognitive is obviously not limited to the private sector.  Dubai government’s application of the capability — in this case, a conversational agent that is able to understand human interactions and provide informed recommendations — represents one example of how government can use this emergent technology to execute a step change in how they interact with their constituents.

In thinking about the adoption of cognitive computing, governments should consider three scenarios where it can deliver significant benefit.

Improve Engagement with Citizens and Residents

Citizens and residents alike can face challenges in navigating government services or getting access to information.  Cognitive agents – or bots – can fundamentally transform this experience.  Imagine, for example, a digital cognitive agent that could communicate, via a social messaging platform or other digital channel, with a citizen or resident and answer questions around how to deal with life events, such as births or marriages; how to register businesses; get advice on policies or procedures; or streamline processes, such as getting a renewal of a driver’s license or a police report.   Whilst this may interact using text on a webpage or via a mobile app, it could eventually extend to interactions via Whatsapp or similar; and, through the use of Speech to Text and Text to Speech technologies, could eventually augment or replace many interactions with call centers.  The advantage of this over human agents is that, whilst available 24 hours a day through a digital channel, the cognitive agent can effectively act as a conversational front-end to a broad set of data sources, such as laws and regulations, and provide answers quickly that would take a human agent substantial training and time to effectively answer.

Discover insights that would not be visible otherwise

The ability to quickly ingest large volumes of data and derive insights that would otherwise be invisible to humans is a key benefit of cognitive technology.  It can find patterns or anomalies in data and surface these to domain experts to make better decisions. Applied to government, this can transform the way in which risk is assessed for immigration or visa issuance: by taking all of the structured and unstructured data related to a person and providing an assessment of their risk.  Cognitive systems can help law enforcement investigations by finding patterns in vast volumes of unstructured data, such as video footage, audio streams, or text.  These technologies can also be used to analyse data related to commercial activities to detect possible cases of tax evasion, fraud, or money laundering.

It’s not just enforcement where cognitive computing can deliver value to governments.  Governments can take social media data, from Twitter and other sources, and can start to determine the sentiment of citizens and residents towards different services; identifying  areas of concern or opportunity for optimisation, such as persistent subjects of complaint (“Why does it take so long for me to get my license?” or “This branch is much faster than the others.”).  When coupled with Internet of Things and mobile technology, governments can start to get real-time data, collected by mobile apps, on road quality or allow citizens and residents to report, using images, maintenance issues such as potholes in the road, vandalism or broken signage.  A cognitive service, at the back end, could take these images, identify the nature of the problem and location, and automatically dispatch someone to attend to them.

Make better decisions

Cognitive systems can help governments make better decisions by providing evidence-based recommendations (free from human bias).  In the context of healthcare, systems can take the body of knowledge related to a field of medicine, such as oncology or ophthalmology, and provide personal recommendations for patients that, taking into account their specific conditions, are informed by the research.  There is no possible way that a medical practitioner can keep aware of all these developments or read every paper; cognitive technologies, however, provide the ability for them to take advantage of the insights and knowledge that may be buried in this vast body of research.  Thus, we are seeing the advent of precision medicine — personalised treatment plants that take into account the unique characteristics of the patient.  Likewise, cognitive can help educators provide personalised education plans by analysing each individual student’s current state of learning and progression; recommending videos, activities or similar to help remediate gaps in understanding or accelerate the student’s learning.

Through the cloud, access to these sophisticated capabilities has been democratised.  Governments, of all sizes and at all levels, can start innovating: using cognitive technology to fundamentally transform how they deliver their services.  Dubai government’s creation of Saad is a first step on this journey towards Cognitive Government.