AI use grew among states during the pandemic, NASCIO says

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State governments adopted new technologies backed by artificial intelligence at a heightened rate during the pandemic, but in survey results published Tuesday by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, state technology leaders said workforce and strategic deficits could impede further adoption of AI.

NASCIO, working with IBM and the Center for Digital Government, collected data from 48 state IT officials in 34 states, 60% of whom said their organizations were using some type of AI technology, such as customer-assistance chatbots or robotic process automation to streamline administrative work. According to the survey, this statistic represents “broad gains” in AI adoption with state government, compared to pre-pandemic figures, before the health crisis generated demand for information and services, especially at health, small-business and unemployment-insurance agencies.

“The COVID-19 pandemic presented the right business case for many state CIOs to adopt AI and it has been beneficial to the expedited delivery of services to citizens,” NASCIO President and Maryland IT Secretary Michael Leahy said in a press release.

Call centers in many states became overloaded during the pandemic as unemployment claims spiked along with requests for guidance on the health crisis and additional support for small businesses. Chatbots, which had been under vague consideration in many states, were quickly approved — and often launched within a matter of days — to help field the sudden influx of requests for aid. NASCIO in June published a similar report showing that 75% of states launched chatbots to aid in pandemic response.

Fifty-six percent of IT leaders also shared optimism that AI could “transform” their organizations within one to three years, though some CIOs noted that effective AI tools require a significant time investment.

“I think there’s still a misunderstanding or underappreciation for what it really takes to do this — the commitment to do this,” Massachusetts CIO Curtis Wood says in the report. “I think the reward is great; but you need to have the investment upfront, you need the right people at the table and you have to commit.”

But AI didn’t always deliver on every front, the report found. While tools like robotic process automation are advertised as a cost-saving tool, only 13% of respondents said AI saved their organizations money.

States were shown to use AI broadly. Utah, for instance, uses AI to support transportation, agriculture and environment agencies, as well as more common uses, such as fraud detection and customer service. 

While the results show that AI likely got a boost in states from the pandemic, CIOs have been anticipating the benefits of automation technologies for several years. When NASCIO in 2019 asked CIOs which emerging technologies they believed would be the “most impactful” within the next three to five years, 65% named AI.

When asked about the biggest barrier to long-term adoption of AI, 75% of respondents selected “a clear framework for AI use and governance.” And when asked about the “biggest bottleneck” to AI adoption, 79% of IT leaders pointed to “a lack of skilled staff training in AI,” highlighting a persistent workforce challenge in state government. 

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AI, NASCIO, pandemic
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