Diverse Perspectives Are Critical When Deploying Emerging Tech, Officials Say


New tech comes with uncertainty, which is why federal teams should seek out expertise and different opinions.

Government leaders must link personnel with diverse perspectives and expertise in their efforts to implement cutting-edge technologies, three officials working in the trenches of federal modernization said in Washington Thursday. 

“It’s uncertain, there’s that uncertainty into it. So you need to actually bring together a variety of different types of experts,” David Maron, the chief of biostatistics at D.C.’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center said at a summit hosted by FCW. “And so specific areas would be 5G, 3D-printing, [artificial intelligence], and even quantum computing—these are the areas where we’re needing to bring in a different variety of skillsets because there isn’t an established understanding.” 

Maron said it’s critical for agency insiders to embrace that uncertainty. It’s a notion he employs as he works directly with VA’s recently hired, first-ever Director of Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Gil Alterovitz, who leads the agency’s robust research and development efforts around the budding technology. In a conversation following the panel discussion, Maron told Nextgov that throughout the research process, Alterovitz and his team embrace a sort of many-hands-on-deck approach. 

On top of people like data scientists, who are particularly knowledgeable in AI, they also work with colleagues focused on human-centered design, decision-makers who impact the entire business process, and subject matter experts from the specific health domain they’re working on. 

“So you can kind of have this broader understanding of tackling the problem together, and then the communication, which is key for relationship-building and understanding,” he said. 

Procurement teams should also embrace multiple perspectives as they work to purchase emerging technologies that could have impacts across their agencies, officials said. 

“It’s so critical that the acquisition team, the acquisition people, partner with their colleagues in [information technology] that might know more about this because … you can’t just pick up a book and learn about this stuff, right?” Joanie Newhart, associate administrator for acquisition workforce programs at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said. 

Newhart said her team recognizes technological innovation is happening “so fast, everywhere” that they are reviewing efforts to ensure there are no duplications in research and to guarantee that information is shared across many federal stakeholders. They’re also working to bring together early pioneers and federal adopters deploying the new technology to identify gaps and accelerate new learnings across the acquisition process. 

“We see a lot of promise here, so we are trying to just not go crazy with it,” Newhart said. “We are trying to do it in a thoughtful manner.”

Officials at the Internal Revenue Service are working fervently to better understand and transform insiders’ hesitancy to embrace emerging technology. 

“I think it’s natural. People, we’re employees—but we’re all humans first—and we have hopes and dreams, and we have fears, or skepticisms, or doubts,” Special Assistant in the IRS’ Office of the Chief Procurement Officer Mitchell Winans said. “So, if I could go back in time, I would take the word ‘robot’ out of robotic process automation, because I think it concerns people, and it alarms people.”

Winans noted that much of the concern is due to misinformation, lack of understanding, or a lack of a general consensus around the uses of all the budding tools and technologies. For that reason, he said it’s imperative for federal leaders to have candid conversations with the workforce, and create a forum or safe space for employees to openly reflect on their anxieties—a space where the leaders can “politely and professionally combat” those concerns.

In his own experience, Winans said he reassures IRS employees not to create a false equivalency between RPA being deployed in the government and commercial space robotics technologies, like the robotic assembly-line, that’s already impacted the automotive workforce. 

“That is not the types of robotics we are using in the government—RPA is software tools,” Winans said. “Being able to articulate that and meeting employees where they are, and to offer that comfort and reassurance, is really critical.”

Another area of concern that must be confronted head-on while deploying new AI and machine and other deep learning technologies is the implications around bias and necessity for ethical deployments. VA’s Maron told Nextgov it’s an area that his and Alterovitz’s team is zeroing in on and working diligently to address. 

“I want you to know that that is an area we are spending a lot of our time right now thinking about ... A priority for us is understanding the ethics of AI and how we can best leverage the technology from a principled space,” he said. “So that really matters to us and is something that we are focused on.”

Maron added the conversation is “to be continued,” as he anticipates VA will unveil “big plans” around the topic in the potentially near future.