Bridging the digital divide through artificial intelligence

13 June 2023

By: Regomoditswe Mavimbela

In today's digital age, technology has transformed the way we communicate with each other. Gone are the days of the traditional communication flow of a sender and receiver – everyone has the potential to be a sender.

The rise of citizens’ access to social media and messaging applications has made it increasingly important for governments around the world to leverage these platforms to reach and engage with their citizens. One innovative solution that has emerged in recent times is the use of chatbots powered by Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) models, which can be used to facilitate government communication.

Chatbots are computer programs that simulate conversation with human users, using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing technology to understand and respond to written or spoken queries.

GPT models are a specific type of AI that use deep learning algorithms to process vast amounts of data and generate coherent and natural-sounding language in response to a given prompt.

Streamline communication processes

Using chatbots powered by GPT models can help governments streamline their communication processes by providing citizens with quick and easy access to information and services. For instance, citizens can use chatbots to ask questions about government programs and services, check the status of their applications or requests, or report issues and complaints. Chatbots can also provide personalised recommendations based on citizens' preferences or interactions with the government.

Another advantage of using chatbots in government communication is that they can operate 24/7, providing instant support to citizens even outside of business hours. This can save time and effort for both citizens and government staff, as well as reduce the need for call centres or customer support personnel. Chatbots can, furthermore, be programmed to handle large volumes of requests simultaneously, making them particularly useful during times of crisis or emergencies.

You may ask; will the use of chatbots eliminate humans? The answer is that the use of AI does not replace human interaction, it is there to create an enabling environment that multiplies the efficiency of our efforts.

Keeping up with changing times

Government recognises the need to invest in relevant skills that will multiply our efforts in addressing the challenges facing the country. Government’s focus on digital skills includes creating platforms to support and promote the ability of youth, and small and medium enterprises, in particular start-ups, to develop digital content.

The AI Institute of South Africa at the Johannesburg Business School of the University of Johannesburg is a collaboration between the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies and Tshwane University of Technology. This first-of-its-kind institute ushers a new era in South Africa’s digital transformation efforts.

The institute is designed to ensure that government, academia and industry work together to apply their collective knowledge, expertise and experience to implement coordinated solutions to some of South Africa and Africa’s most critical and long-standing challenges, and to take the continent forward.

There are, of course, potential challenges and limitations to consider when using chatbots for government communication.

One concern is that chatbots may not always provide accurate or relevant information, especially when dealing with complex or sensitive topics. To address this, government departments need to ensure that chatbots are well-designed, regularly updated, and supported by human operators who can intervene when necessary.

Another challenge is ensuring the privacy and security of citizens' data when using chatbots. Government must comply with relevant data protection regulations and ensure that chatbots do not collect or misuse citizens' personal information. Moreover, chatbots need to be designed with accessibility in mind, so that citizens with disabilities or language barriers can still use them effectively.

In conclusion, using chatbots powered by GPT models can be a valuable tool for government to enhance their communication and engagement with citizens. However, careful planning and implementation are necessary to ensure that chatbots are reliable, effective and respectful of citizens’ rights.

Regomoditswe Mavimbela is the deputy director-general of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)