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The Limits and Thresholds of Automation

When computers first became mainstream tools, the idea that they might beat human beings at chess—a complex and organic game—seemed absurd. In 1996, however, Deep Blue, an IBM machine, beat the reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a game. A certain Rubicon had been crossed, and computers, by everyone’s reckoning, would only get better at chess.

A similar thing seems to be in the works for film-making: it is predicted that computer animation will integrate digitised environments and beings so seamlessly within real ones that viewers will no longer be able to tell where nature ends and data beings.

Are there parallels in public administration, where technology has reached or will reach a threshold? A limit crossed, beyond which the technological architecture can be assumed to be pervasive and powerful enough to allow bureaucracy and administration to fade into the background, to be replaced by policy acting real-time in citizens’ lives?

OneInbox - an electronic service that allows individuals and businesses to receive correspondences from government agencies - will be inaugurated by Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority early next year, and the government plans to have about a third of the country’s population using it within three years. Meanwhile, the recently launched allows the secure management of personal data and the ability to share it selectively with individuals and organisations. Soon, we may not have to fill in forms, and will simply need to oversee the release of data to agents or entitites we authorise personally.

Automation has percolated through layers of legislative and bureaucratic inertia and reached the individual, and initiatives like these will go quite a long way in helping eliminate repetitive but necessary tasks. Citizen service delivery may be one of the first few aspects of governments going electronic to provide a fully automated, seamless, end-to-end digital experience to all stakeholders. This is not only because governments are prioritising citizen engagement and inclusion, but also because the participation of the private sector in these transactions is based on sound and extremely profitable models for the industry.

What would be the best way to reach this goal of a fully automated framework within all sectors of government activity? A fully open government would certainly help: a body that makes its influences transparent in every possible sense, and one that is willing to share what it does, but is also willing to tap into the sharing of others.

In the security space, governments using social media are in many ways hastening the process of automation, as the Dutch Police force has managed to do. Last week, Roy Mente, Chief Innovation Officer, Koninklijke Marechaussee, and Elle De Jong, Chief Inspector, Dutch National Police, Project Manager, Research & Innovation in the recently concluded FutureGov First Responder Forum, demonstrated a system they had developed.

Called ComProNet, it integrates GIS, Twitter and other social media networks with their in-house monitoring system to trace, track and eventually arrest law-breakers. The system will depend on citizens providing accurate data using their smartphone cameras, tweets and other multimedia or crowdsourcing tools. The system will go live by the end of this year, and as far as integrated technological platforms are concerned, it can be argued to be almost aesthetically “beautiful” in its simplicity and wide ranging applicability.

In 2003, Grady Booch (a pioneer in the field of Software Architecture) from the IBM Software group outlined nine factors that determine the uppermost limits of what technology is able to accomplish:

  1. The laws of physics
  2. The laws of software
  3. The challenge of algorithms
  4. The difficulty of distribution
  5. The problems of design
  6. The problems of functionality
  7. The importance of organisation
  8. The impact of economics
  9. The influence of politics

The laws of physics are impossible to change and human beings can only discover the algorithms that their collective intelligence can handle. Organisations, though - especially governments - can closely examine the way they handle factors four to ten. If the most difficult parts (one to three) are taken care of and the technology does exist out there to bring a real change to the way governments operate, they will then be able to make optimal use of it.

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