Got a question for the government? Talk to the Facebook robot

Singapore has created a innovative Facebook chatbot to automatically answer people’s questions about their dealings with the government.

“Jamie”, who, judging by the picture, is a smartly dressed young woman with a big smile, can respond to queries about how to adopt a child, how to stop telemarketers calling you and how to protect your personal information online. She’ll also give you the links to act on what she’s just told you.

At the moment, Jamie is still in testing and quickly draws a blank if you ask her about anything outside the range of subjects she knows. But her predecessor, the virtual assistant on the Singaporean government’s own websites, fields around 200,000 questions a month, and rising.

The virtual assistant can answer up to 95% of questions

The virtual assistant manages to answer between 70% and 95% of questions, with satisfaction rates of about 60-70%.

The point, from the government’s perspective, is to stop people ringing up with simple queries, and it also means people can get answers outside working hours. ‘There are different preferences, a person can really like calling the help desk,’ said Gladys Tay, a spokeswoman for Singapore’s GovTech agency. ‘But we hope it will really reduce the reliance on call centres. I think it’s doing pretty well. We ask people whether it’s stopped them making a call and we’re getting rates of about 60%.’

Perhaps the most useful aspect for the public, however, is that both the Facebook chatbot and the virtual assistant on the government sites can pull in information from different departments, so you don’t have to figure out who is the right person to speak to. The virtual assistant is already being used by 18 out of around 100 government agencies in Singapore.

Jamie was named one of the most cutting-edge government technologies in the world

Many governments over the past few years have tried using virtual assistants on their webpages to make it easier to find information. Singapore itself has a couple of others: Jasmine, who helps you with your taxes, and Judy, who helps with housing.

But chatbot Jamie represents a new stage of evolution. Named by this year’s World Government Summit as one of the most cutting edge government technologies anywhere, she appears to be the first on Facebook and part of big leap forward in how people interact with computers.

Jamie uses “natural language processing”, which means that, unlike on older computer systems, you don’t have to frame your questions in a particular way to get the responses you want. As the technology develops, conversation with Jamie should become ever easier and more flowing.

Ultimately, the aim is to customise Jamie to everyone in the country

She also learns from her hundreds of thousands of monthly interactions to get steadily better at answering people’s questions. An analogy might be found in Google Translate, which was laughably bad at first and has now, after crunching unimaginable amounts of data, reached the point where the language it churns out, in some pairing at least, is correct, if still idiosyncratic.

The next stage for Jamie is to go beyond retrieving information from a database to walking people through entire tasks, such as registering a car or paying taxes.

Ultimately, though, the idea is to customise Jamie to every person in the country. That would mean Jamie knew who you were when you spoke to her.

“There’s no harm in dreaming, right?”

Said Gladys Tay, ‘As an aspiration, we’re thinking of getting Jamie to work as a transactional chatbot. So for example when men in Singapore go overseas, they have to check in because of national service and say how long they will be away, from this day to that day. If you have a transactional chatbot, you can just message Jamie and Jamie will log it in. Of course that’s aspirational, but there’s no harm in dreaming right?’

The dream is a beguiling one: that rather than navigating the labyrinthine systems of government when you need to get a passport, pay taxes or apply for benefits, you just go on Facebook and ask Jamie.

The bot may not be fully functioning yet, to say nothing of having achieved consciousness, but you can ask her some simple questions about herself. If you ask, ‘what is Jamie’, she says, ‘I am a chatbot’. And if you ask, ‘how are you?’ she says, ‘I’m fine. How can I help?’ And that’s the thing about Jamie. She’s always fine, and she’s always ready to help.

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