Estonia to give citizens Alexa-like access to public services

The Estonian government is working on a project that will ultimately allow citizens to ask Siri, Alexa or almost any other virtual digital assistant to interact with government departments on their behalf

Estonian citizens will be able to access and use the government services they require with the help of the digital personal assistant of their choice, if the government’s latest project comes to fruition.

The Estonian government will this year take its digital services strategy to the next level with the creation of a network of public sector software robots that, through a virtual assistant of a citizen’s choice, can be accessed to complete government service application processes.

Because the Estonian government makes all its services available online, the system will be able to access all the information it needs about a citizen to process things such as applications for a new passport.

After the citizen makes a voice request, the virtual assistant might ask for a fingerprint to verify their identity or a selfie to be used on a document, but beyond that applications for services such as renewing passports and registering births will be automated.

In the future, citizens might be able to ask Siri to do their taxes, for example, which will trigger an automated process where artificial intelligence (AI) applications in different departments interact to complete the request.

Estonian government CIO Siim Sikkut told Computer Weekly the project, known as #KrattAI, is in its conceptual stage. It will enable citizens, if they wish, to interact with the government in a similar way to how they use Alexa to play certain music or order food.

“Fundamentally, we don’t offer an interface. People will use the interfaces that are with them anyway, whether it is Echo in the home or a mobile phone,” he said.

“The hard job for a CIO is to attract people to our channels, but we want to turn it around and say, ‘Hey, the channel is with you already’.”

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And the service will not just automate the process from the citizen contacting the assistant, but will contact the citizen when it knows he or she will need to use a service soon.

Sikkut said the citizen will remain in full control of the data, pointing out that “it will only work if you ask it to”.

Citizens will, for example, be contacted by the virtual assistant to offer help if their passport is near expiration. The virtual assistant will be able to have another ordered and on its way after a conversation with the citizen, taking a new passport picture via the phone, carrying out identification through a fingerprint, and linking to the systems of the necessary authorities, in Estonia’s case the Police and Border Guard.

According to the Estonian government, it will use a network of AI applications to harness the digital services that already exist, rather than building a technologically huge chatbot to automate requests from all citizens.

“#KrattAI will not be one massive chatbot in the technological sense, handling all interactions and activities in its belly through one big application,” said Sikkut. “Estonian digital government has been built on principles of distributed architecture set up with the intent to make it more flexible for development and more resilient against cyber threats. This should be kept the same in the age of AI.”

The government said the complexity and rigidity of the public sector would be moved to the background, away from the user. The technology needed to make this work already exists, even if it requires further development and integration, it added.

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