There’s nothing like a crisis to push governments and public bodies to do things faster than they might normally. This global pandemic has been no different – putting governments under immense pressure to re-imagine how they work by accelerating digital transformation programs, in some cases implementing projects in weeks versus months or years.

Notably, the role of artificial intelligence (AI) to manage the public health emergency has become more prominent, with many public sector institutions increasingly turning to data and AI to assist with tracking and tracing contacts or answering questions and sharing up-to-date information with the public.

At the crossroads between citizenship and technology, AI offers great potential for the public sector. For governments and public institutions in today’s data-driven world, embracing AI is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

Whether it be detecting tax evasion, predicting crimes, or accelerating the distribution of social benefits, AI is a powerful companion for all kinds of public services. Not only can it help the public sector innovate and transform for the future, but the responsible use of AI in government can also help drive economic growth while advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and contributing to a more inclusive society.

Even before the crisis, governments and public sector institutions were paying close attention to AI. There has been mounting interest from politicians and citizens to invest in new technologies that will modernise legacy infrastructure and help governments make better and more informed decisions for the public.

AI and governments: The stakes are high

Governments around the world have increasingly been investing in AI research and working with industry leaders and academia on projects ranging from the automation of administrative processes to the detection of fraudulent activities and helping in the decision-making process by providing predictive and prescriptive analytics.

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In fact, the global market for AI in government was valued at $4.9bn in 2019, driven by a growing volume of big data and the rapid adoption of cloud computing solutions. Mastering this data will be key to realising the full potential of augmented government, with AI strengthening, not replacing, public sector expertise, while ensuring that humans and models complement one another within given tasks, in full awareness and with shared goals.

At the same time AI, like many other emerging technologies, presents certain challenges. These include issues around privacy, security, ethics, new digital divides and the need for AI skills in the labour market.

We also know that AI systems can turn out unfair outcomes because they have been designed with biased data sets. In fact, algorithms have come under scrutiny recently, for example in the UK, where an AI system used to award student grades caused massive public outrage and affected the year’s university intake up and down the country.

In government, the stakes are high because AI is used to make decisions that have a significant impact on peoples’ lives. Governments need to get to grips with these issues at speed and scale if they are to implement AI systems that are innovative, trustworthy and that respect human rights and democratic values.

How can this be achieved?

There is one key aspect of AI that should be linked to the government’s strategies: the imperative that technology should augment and assist humans, but not replace them. The power to make decisions should remain truly embedded in human governance, in a world where AI provides the best insights possible.

Furthermore, the following aspects of the AI-powered transformation journey towards mastering data must be considered by public sector organisations:

  • Working on sustainable data governance, bringing an enabled data pool to life
  • Relying on the innovation power of the ecosystem where it makes sense, be it established software partners or startups
  • Bringing together the power of academia, universities, and research institutions
  • Proactively addressing the question of trust and ethics, nurturing change management and data-centric culture within organisations.

Nurturing public services with responsible, open, and fair data will be crucial in ensuring ethical AI in a world where personal and citizen data is so central. In the move towards progress, public institutions and governments will be on the frontline, and, more than anywhere else, also acting as guardians of AI’s ethical and lawful use.

By addressing the problems most citizens face at some point, with the right partners for support and a continuous effort towards the ethical and scalable use of technology, AI can transform the way public services are developed and delivered. It can benefit people and the planet by driving inclusive growth, sustainable development and well-being, and it can contribute to a fair and just society for all.

Anne-Laure Thieullent is the artificial intelligence and analytics group offer leader at Capgemini, a French multinational corporation that provides consulting, digital transformation, technology, and engineering services.

Read more: Businesses must focus on data’s higher purpose in the new normal