Energy CIO clarifies role of AI in modernization agenda

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The agency’s CIO Ann Dunkin said she wants people to be able to “use AI in the best way possible to support operations.”

Officials at the Department of Energy are taking a methodical approach to incorporating generative artificial intelligence into its modernization agenda as the agency looks to leverage software tools under smart, safe guidance. 

Ann Dunkin, Energy’s chief information officer, discussed her agency’s objectives regarding the adoption of AI systems for internal use during a Fed Gov Today interview

Energy put a pause “quite a while ago” on the use of ChatGPT at its headquarters to examine the implications of the technology, according to Dunkin. She added that Energy’s sprawling sub offices took their own looks at generative AI to determine who could make use of it. 

“In every case, we're making it available to people who have a business need to use the tool,” she said. “But there's more to the story as well. We got a group from across [Energy] together — over 100 people — to talk about how we're going to use generative AI.”

Energy’s potential uses of AI and machine learning softwares fall into two categories: research and operations. Dunkin said that following Energy’s internal meeting, the group has worked on guidance on how to successfully leverage tools like ChatGPT. 

“We want to make sure people can use AI in the best way possible to support operations and to make DOE a better place and make it run better,” she said. 

The guidance acts as guardrails for safe AI use. Dunkin noted that Energy already has other policies in place to help regulate how Energy personnel make use of AI systems safely and effectively. The agency is also employing a new AI sandbox called the Discovery Zone to help educate staff on how to best use the technology. 

“If you want to be able to understand how to use AI in a safe place, we're creating that space for people to do that,” Dunkin said. 

The Discovery Zone and the guidance developed by the internal Energy stakeholders is part of the agency’s larger play to unite its offices under coordinated plans for responding to and leveraging emerging technologies in the ongoing federal modernization process. 

“Modernization never ends,” Dunkin said. “We still have to examine those upgrades, understand what they are and make sure they don't change our security posture, make sure they meet our users’ needs, and ultimately, you have to look at whether you have the right products in your ecosystem.”