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Artificial Intelligence could help define problems, identify solutions and organize execution for dysfunctional governments that plod along inefficiently.

How Good Software Could Support Good Government Through AI

If you conducted a poll of 1,000 U.S. citizens and asked “Is America working?”, something close to 100 percent would answer “Hell, no!”

If you then asked those same 1,000 citizens what should be done to make America work, the answer probably wouldn’t be, “It’s the software, stupid!” Maybe it should.

Exhibit A of America not working is the federal government, from the Pentagon to the Post Office to Congress. While partisans blame each other for dysfunction and dystopia, a more clear-eyed diagnosis is that officials focus on tasks, not the big picture. They lack a real-time digital dashboard to see the full dimension of a problem, the range of potential solutions and the best chance for success.

Proof of Concept
In a lengthy essay by Josh Tyrangiel, who covers artificial intelligence for The Washington Post, he describes how Gustave Perna, a retired four-star general. oversaw the successful production and distribution of the first coronavirus vaccines. A month into his retirement, Perna was recruited to lead Operation Warp Speed with a staff of three colonels, no money and no plan. Donald Trump was President.

“Perna needed up-to-the-minute data from all the relevant state and federal agencies, drug companies, hospitals, pharmacies, manufacturers, truckers, dry ice makers, etc.,“ Tyrangiel wrote. “Oh, and that data needed to be standardized and operationalized for swift decision-making.”

A typical challenge that could have made the entire operation fail was ensuring there were enough syringes, which required knowing about the supply chains for plastic, needles and bags. “With thousands of people dying each day, Perna could find himself with hundreds of millions of vaccine doses and nothing to put them in,” Tyrangiel explained.

To deal with his massive challenge, Perna hired Palantir, a Silicon Valley software company, after it promised to build a system with “all the data you need so that you can assess, determine risk and make decisions rapidly.”

“Palantir did exactly what it promised,” Perna told Tyrangiel. Using artificial intelligence, the company optimized thousands of data streams and piped them into an elegant interface. In a few short weeks, Perna had his ‘God view’ of the problem. A few months after that, Operation Warp Speed delivered vaccines simultaneously to all 50 states.

Ammo and iPads
Ukraine provides more proof of concept, according to Tyrangiel. Palantir supports the Ukrainian military with “real-time views from hundreds of commercial satellites with communications technology and weapons data. All of that information is then seamlessly displayed on laptops and handheld dashboards for commanders on the battlefield.” The Ukrainians are holding their own because of ammunition and iPads.

Tyrangiel asked Perna how AI could help unknot in the federal government. “Everything,” he said. “I don’t understand how we’re not using it for organ donation right now. We should be ashamed. And, why do we need 80,000 new people at the IRS? We could revolutionize the budget process.”

The advent of communications technology has exponentially increased the amount of data collected and stored. You could think of all these information sources as individual garden hoses with their own separate streams. AI has the computing power to analyze and synthesize those data streams, turning hundreds of garden hoses into one pipeline.

“We’ve always been the mole people of Silicon Valley,” Akshay Krishnaswamy, Palantir’s chief software architect, told Tyrangiel. “It’s like we go into the plumbing of all this stuff and come out and say, ‘Let’s help you build a beautiful ontology.’” By ontology, he means “untangling messes and creating a functional information ecosystem.” In other words, the big picture.

Unsnarling Dysfunction
Unsnarling America’s dysfunction will take more than one company to achieve. But Palantir has blazed the trail for a wider perspective in federal procurement after successfully suing the Department of Defense in 2016 for overlooking its software in favor of contractors with “video presentations of unbuilt solutions.”

Regardless who is in charge, governmental agencies run on inertia. “The challenge then,” Tyrangiel claims, “is fixing a massive system that has become constitutionally resistant to solutions, particularly ones fueled by technology such as artificial intelligence.”

There is ample reason to view AI with suspicion. But the suspicion shouldn’t negate the opportunities this form of advanced software could open.

“The normal course of software development involves prototyping with a small group of engineers, getting lots of user feedback and endless refinement and iteration,” says Eric Schmidt, a software engineer and former Google president who served on the Defense Innovation Board. “Every single thing I just told you is illegal. You can’t have AI in the government or the military until you solve the problem of software in the government and military.”

Software Is Never Done
Tyrangiel says the Board produced a report titled Software is Never Done that “made common-sense recommendations such as treating software as a living thing that crosses budget lines; doing cost assessments that prioritize speed, security, functionality and code quality; collecting data from the department’s weapons systems and creating a secure repository to evaluate their effectiveness.”

That message hasn’t sunk in, or at least hasn’t been blessed by the federal government. Tyrangiel interviewed Jennifer Pahlka, one of government’s top software repairpersons. “The dysfunction loop begins,” she says, “when absurd processes are given to public servants who will be judged on their compliance with absurdity.”

“If they do their jobs right, the nation purchases obsolete overpriced software,” Pahlka continues. “If they make a mistake or take a risk that defies the absurdity, politicians hold hearings and jump all over them, which is far simpler than fixing the process. Each recrimination drives more good people out of public service. Rinse, repeat.”

Pahlka has written a book, Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better. Existing and former government employees regularly ask her to sign their copy.

Healing the National Fracture
Tyrangiel ends his essay with this exhortation: “The relationship between citizens and government is fractured. It’s crucial to the republic’s survival that we stop defending the status quo. New technology can help us repair the damage and open the door to a level of service and efficiency that will make Scandinavians seethe with envy. Almost all of this AI tech has been created by American ingenuity inside American companies, and the American people deserve its benefits.”

He also admonished Democrats for making the unsustainable promise of jobs forever and Republicans who indulge in “idiotic fantasies of burning the entire federal apparatus to the ground.”

Going from chaos to a digital dashboard may be too much of a leap all at once. Tyrangiel advises starting with a slow-rolling crisis, like the deaths by suicide of American veterans, which may have been avoided if screenings had been scheduled and conducted.

“When we create digital infrastructure, appointment scheduling can run on AI,” Tyrangiel explains. “A cascade of benefits would follow, such as reduced wait times, analytics that predict demand for services and automated reminders and follow-ups so VA staff can focus on patients over paperwork. Next, make a first alert chatbot for veterans that, only with their consent, can be used to look for signs of crisis or suicidal thoughts, offer coping mechanisms and resources, and escalate cases to mental health providers.”

“Veterans deserve to be empowered with a God view of their own treatment,” Tyrangiel continues, “and that data can be anonymized and analyzed for insights into veteran-specific conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.”

“Is there risk?” he asks. “There is. Is the risk worse than an average of 18 veterans killing themselves each day? I don’t think so.”

AI and America
Tyrangiel isn’t saying AI will save America. He says we can retrieve a working America by sensibly using AI and applying the information it provides to make better decisions and deliver better service. And save lives in the process.

Yes, AI poses threats, some of which have been predicted and others that will eventually be discovered. But fear of technology isn’t part of American DNA. We have world-leading software engineers and technology companies that can deliver world-class efficiency in governmental decision-making and service delivery. We need world-leading politicians who will embrace and implement technologies that make government work better for citizens.

Our problems may be daunting. Our solutions should be equally undaunted. “It turns out,” Tyrangiel says, “that good software and good government are more similar than we knew: Neither is ever done.”

Good Government and Good Software