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Alexa, Can You Tell Me About GSA's Virtual Assistant Pilot?

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In the future, citizens seeking government services might not flock to websites. Instead, they might ask their Amazon Alexa, Apple's Siri or a text-based chatbot for help. 

At least, that's the plan, per a new pilot program at the General Services Administration.

This week, GSA launched a pilot that would walk federal agencies through the process of setting up virtual assistants, powered by machine-learning and artificial intelligence technology, which can eventually be deployed to citizens.

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The goal isn't just to produce more "intelligent personal assistants," or IPAs, GSA's Emerging Citizen Technology Office lead Justin Herman told Nextgov. It's also to build out a structure internally, complete with toolkits and guides, so agencies can decide for themselves whether this technology is worthwhile, he explained. 

"The easiest part of this is actually building them," Herman added.

The program may discuss building services on platforms such as Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana, the Google Assistant and Facebook's chatbot messenger.

But it's "not just putting these services into a chatbot," Herman said. "We're having workshops focusing specifically on, 'What are the business cases? What are those problems government agencies have, that aren't being met, that just so happen that could be met through machine learning and AI?'"

They're also learning how federal data can be presented so it's accessible to those virtual assistants, he added.

GSA plans to run the pilot over the next month and to be able to give agencies the policy, accessibility, security and privacy guidance they need to build a virtual assistant. Eventually, GSA could hand those findings to tech companies so they could better support agencies building IPAs on their platforms.

The pilot's first phase covers making read-only public data available to citizens agencies are considering future phases that are increasingly complex, Herman explained.

GSA's Emerging Citizen Technology Office is also working on similar programs related to virtual reality and augmented reality, Herman said.

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