In the works: Chatbots to answer queries on govt websites

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is exploring the use of chatbots, programs that simulate human behaviour, to help users navigate online government services, and will partner Microsoft to develop the technology.

Called Conversations As A Platform, the project was announced yesterday at the World Cities Summit by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Foreign Minister and Minister-In-Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

During a discussion at the event, he said: "If you ask most people today, most of their interactions with their friends and peers are through mediums such as instant messaging. Now, the question is, why shouldn't the same capability be available for the Government?"

Interacting with a chatbot is similar to chatting with a human. Users type a question into a chat window, and the bot will answer.

Mr Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said in a statement: "Conversations As A Platform is a new shift that applies the understanding of human language to computers and computing, which can transform every industry."

While no timeline for the project was given, it will be conducted in three phases.

In Phase One, chatbots will draw on a database to answer questions from users about public services.

In Phase Two, they will be able to help users complete simple tasks on government websites.

In the final phase, chatbots will be able to respond to personalised queries from users.

The Government is already using virtual assistants on some of its websites. Ask Jamie, a joint project between IDA and the Ministry of Finance, was launched in 2014. Users can type questions into a chat window, and the assistant will direct them to the appropriate resource.

Mr Thomas Husson, vice-president and principal analyst at infotech research firm Forrester, said chatbots are an interesting way of providing services.

But he warned: "The risk is that it can create some frustration if citizens do not get what they want, or if there isn't a good balance with human-type interactions."

Educational therapist Christabel Hong, 55, thinks chatbots are a good idea. "It's better than trying to reach an officer via phone. Sometimes, there are many menu options and a long waiting time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'In the works: Chatbots to answer queries on govt websites'. Print Edition | Subscribe