AI can help Japanese governments improve services: Yomiuri Shimbun

In its editorial, the paper says that concern remains over a possible situation in which local governments develop and introduce artificial intelligence systems in a disjointed manner.

Visitors looking at Palro, a robot developed by Fujisoft, at the Artificial Intelligence expo in Tokyo on April 5, 2019.
Visitors looking at Palro, a robot developed by Fujisoft, at the Artificial Intelligence expo in Tokyo on April 5, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Local governments are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) in their operations.

It is vital that this technology be used to make up for the staff shortages that will accompany the nation's shrinking population and lead to better services for residents.

The city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, has introduced a system that uses artificial intelligence to automatically respond to inquiries residents make via smartphones and other channels.

During the winter months, the system will notify users about the locations of snowplows, so they can estimate when roads in their areas will be cleared of snow.

If a user types in, "I've fallen ill," on a holiday, the system displays medical institutions that are treating patients that day.

Residents can make inquiries even on holidays and at night. It is reassuring for residents to know they can use the system even when local government offices are closed.

In admissions screening for placing children at day care centres, the Saitama city government uses artificial intelligence that was able to learn the selection rules and has slashed the time needed for this work down from a total of 1,500 hours to just a few seconds.

Another expected advantage of this system is that parents and guardians are swiftly notified of the results of their applications, so families who missed out can quickly start looking for another day care centre for their child.

However, the extent to which local governments have embraced such technologies varies widely.

According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, local governments in about 60 percent of ordinance-designated major cities have introduced artificial intelligence into their operations, but only about 4 per cent of other city, ward, town and village governments have done so.

Seventy per cent of city, ward, town and village governments have no plans to bring in artificial intelligence technology and are not even considering it.

One apparent factor in this situation is that local government heads and local assemblies in various municipalities have differing degrees of interest in AI.

This fiscal year, the ministry is conducting a demonstration experiment on the use of artificial intelligence in Kitakyushu and other municipalities. The ministry plans to provide all local governments with a guidebook detailing the process of introducing artificial intelligence technology.

It will be essential to provide concrete examples and illustrate the impact of introducing artificial intelligence so more people will understand the applications of this technology.

Concern remains over a possible situation in which local governments develop and introduce artificial intelligence systems in a disjointed manner.

As the nation's population continues to fall, it is anticipated that local governments will work closely in a wide range of areas.

If their differing systems hamstring such cooperation, investments made in artificial intelligence up to that point could go to waste. The government should keep an eye on the future and push collaboration on AI development.

In many cases, the full introduction of artificial intelligence technologies requires a large budget.

If local governments can cap these costs through joint development, it should become easier even for municipalities with small budgets to weave artificial intelligence into their operations.

It must not be forgotten that the meticulous handling of matters by local government workers is the foundation of services provided to residents.

There are many issues involving complex circumstances that artificial intelligence alone cannot handle.

Local governments must thoroughly ensure that, in concert with the use of artificial intelligence, their employees see the residents' perspectives and courteously deal with their inquiries.

The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.