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Soon, There'll Be A Siri For Websites: SG Govt Partners Microsoft To Create Intelligent Chatbots

How would you like your digital public service transactions be made even simpler and more convenient?

Yesterday, Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Dr Vivian Balakrishnan announced at the World Cities Summit that the Singapore government will be working with multinational software company Microsoft to create virtual assistants for Singapore citizens to use on public service websites.

Via a three phase proof-of-concept (POC) by Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and Microsoft, ways of building ‘conversational intelligence’ into public services would be explored, and these chatbots would not only be able to help users answer questions they might have, they can even help complete simple tasks.

“I believe there are more intuitive ways for Government services to be delivered to our citizens. Everybody expects responsive and personalised interactions in real time,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

Conversations As A Platform

With the emphasis on ‘conversations as a platform’, the programme will be heading towards building an intelligent system that can respond to users in real time and “make the most efficient use of government resources”. This means that as compared to wasting your time being put on hold on a help hotline or scouring through wordy FAQs, these chatbots will ideally be able to assist in your queries via text or voice inputs.

The programme is said to “represent a fundamental shift where the power of human language, artificial intelligence and machine learning are applied pervasively through computing interface and interaction”.

In simpler terms, what this means is that computing systems and websites will be increasingly incorporating human-based intelligence so that human users can interact with the machines through the form of conversation – both text and verbal.

“Everybody expects responsive and personalised interactions in real time,” explains Dr Balakrishnan.

The three phase POC will see a steady progress in what the chatbots will be able to do:

Phase One: Answer simple factual questions about selected public services.

Phase Two: Help complete simple tasks and transactions within government sites.

Phase Three: Respond to personalised user queries.

There would also be explorations into making the service cater to Singaporeans of different linguistic backgrounds and ages, so soon, your grandmother would have no issues online as well.

Said Microsoft Singapore’s managing director Jessica Tan, “Teaching computers to understand our natural language will make technology ‘invisible’ and allow older Singaporeans to participate more actively and inclusively.”

Adding A Human Element To Bots

The impending project is nothing new for government sites, as IDA already has an “Ask Jamie”chatbot which helps visitors navigate the site when they have a question.

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By putting a face to ‘Jamie’ and the encouragement of users to type in their questions (as compared to clicking through keywords like in normal FAQs) there seems to be hints of the move to ‘humanise’ the process of FAQ and computing systems.

Think about intelligent personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s own Cortana. By adding the conversational element to these programmes, users are easily able to search for information and complete tasks by simply ‘talking’ to their phones, saving users’ time in tasks which can be deemed as menial.

This is probably the same direction that the Singapore government wants to move towards for digital services with their collaboration with Microsoft.

How’s that for an even Smarter Nation?

Singaporean Netizens Respond

In spite of the promising possibilities the POC intends to bring about, Singapore netizens don’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it, most peppering their responses with sarcasm:

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The success of the POC and how well Singaporeans take to it can only be evaluated in time to come, and without a timeline stated for the collaboration, we might still need to rely on the manual (time-consuming) way of getting around public service websites and our transactions on them.

Personally, I’m more interested in how the POC will be able to bridge the gap between technology and the older, non-English speaking generation. In the rapid move towards a Smart Nation, the technological knowledge gaps are simply widening as the days go by.

Even with courses available for these older Singaporeans, the lack of exposure to technology in their daily lives still makes these increasingly automated and digital systems absolutely foreign to them. For me, a Smart Nation is one that is not only beneficial for those in-the-know, but for every single Singaporean to become ‘smarter’ as well.

In that case, perhaps intelligent chatbots could be the way to go.

 

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