The way artificial intelligence can be leveraged for public services in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond is the focus of a new study of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Google.

The Artificial Intelligence in the Delivery of Public Services study was launched on 16 October and is the first of its kind as a collaboration between the UN Secretariat and Google, the latter of which has suggested that AI can be a helpful tool for governments to use in the public sector.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP, pointed out that AI can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, stating that, “On the path to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments in Asia and the Pacific are urgently pursuing innovative means to deliver effective and fair public services. Frontier technologies such as AI promise to reimagine how the public sector can better serve sustainable development needs”.

Regarding ESCAP’s collaboration with Google, she added, “I look forward to continuing to strengthen the partnership with Google and enable the countries in the region to better leverage frontier technologies for sustainable development.”

At the same time, Ted Osius, Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Policy, Google Asia Pacific said, “As part of our regional partnership on AI for Social Good, we are pleased to collaborate with UN-ESCAP to showcase some good practices and lessons learned in the use of AI for public service delivery. As AI advancements are increasingly deployed in sectors ranging from healthcare, the environment and education, we see exciting opportunities for public sector agencies to bring these benefits to larger and larger populations. We hope that the lessons captured in this report help inspire people to identify more areas where AI could help tackle challenges in the public sector.’’

Due to the lack of case studies when it comes to AI’s exploitation in the public sector, the report attempts to fill the gap and offers recommendations for the deployment of AI in health, justice, agriculture, environment, insurance, and social welfare services. 

More specifically, the report encourages governments to develop public-private partnerships in order to complement their initiatives with industry knowledge and expertise. Governments are also urged to develop frameworks to regulate these partnerships and to offer better public information concerning AI projects.

Since applications of AI in the public sector are rare, setbacks and a trial-and-error process may occur. The report’s case studies show that a competitive selection process may contribute to the discovery and initiation of AI technology in public services. The private and public sector can as well benefit in the learning process and the development of AI solutions through deep research and contestation. 

The current report is the result of a Memorandum of Understanding initiated between ESCAP and Google in December 2018 to share good practices and solutions for the promotion of AI.