State CIOs eye satellite internet, chatbots, automation tools

A photo captures a June 2021 Starlink mission. (SpaceX)

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When asked during a virtual event Tuesday which technologies excite them most to advance their agendas, three state chief information officers provided some unique responses.

Two of the state officials — Nevada CIO Alan Cunningham and Alaska CIO Bill Smith — named low-Earth-orbit satellite as one of the technologies of interest. Both states have large rural expanses that are difficult and expensive to connect by conventional means. Cunningham said his state’s been testing technology from Starlink, the satellite internet service developed by SpaceX that eventually plans to launch more than 30,000 satellites to blanket the globe with high-speed internet access.

“We’ve been testing that and it’s passing all the tests we’re throwing at it, so that’s really exciting,” Cunningham said during an event hosted by the Information Security Media Group.

Cunningham said deploying a Starlink system in the middle of the desert is more attractive than running dozens of miles of fiber optic cables, and that he’s found the LEO systems can achieve speeds of 300 Mbps download, 60 Mbps upload, easily meeting the current federal broadband definition.

Smith also cited low-Earth-orbit satellites as an exciting development considering the challenges his northern state has faced.

“What’s really exciting to me about that is not necessarily the LEO technology, but the fact we’ve got companies that are putting satellites over the northern latitudes and over Alaska,” Smith said. “And that’s a change and that’s a huge piece of our ability to increase our connectivity around the state, because that latitude question has always been exciting.”

North Carolina CIO Jim Weaver did not mention satellite internet in his responses to the question, but his state is looking at the technology. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced in March that Weaver’s broadband office would use $264,000 in CARES Act funding to pilot Starlink systems to expand K-12 access in two of its most rural counties.

But Weaver said he’s interested in the growing adoption of artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and low-code and no-code solutions that can be used to advance his state’s IT modernization efforts.

“I think the adoption rate of some of these technologies that maybe had not been at the forefront here in North Carolina, I’m excited to see the capabilities that those tool sets are going to bring to our state and the outcomes that they’re doing to generate,” Weaver said.

Beyond satellites and automation, Smith, Alaska’s CIO, said the growing sophistication of collaboration tools has also caught his attention.

“During the pandemic, the evolution of product features and things like that has really accelerated, but more importantly the personal adoption from our workforce and just for our everyday lives has been really exciting, because as we all know, that change management and getting people to adopt new technologies is often the longest leg in that chain,” Smith said.

Cunningham, Nevada’s CIO, said he’s also keeping an eye on chatbot technology from a company called Soul Machines, which markets its bots as “astonishing digital people,” photorealistic avatars that can respond to customers’ questions.

“They have a digital brain that they’ve designed and they have an avatar-style interface instead of just your normal chatbot,” Cunningham said. “I think in the next few weeks they’re going to be releasing a lot of their products in the [Dallas-Forth Worth] airport. So all the directory systems are going to move from a dictionary style to this new humanized interactive system, and I really think that’s going to help.”

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Alan Cunningham, Alaska, Bill Smith, emerging tech, Jim Weaver, Nevada, North Carolina, satellite internet, starlink
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