Digital Human coming to City of Amarillo website

On Tuesday, the Amarillo City Council unanimously approved $582,948 to fund a digital human contract for city website customer service at Tuesday’s regular meeting.

Rich Gagnon, the chief information officer and assistant city manager for Amarillo, spoke about the benefit to the city and its citizens with an artificial intelligence (AI) digital human that can be accessed via the internet to provide information about the city with access to forms and other resources.

Gagnon said that the city website could be complex and uninviting to many users and that a virtual human would provide conversational access to find out about anything on the city’s website and the ability to find out more information. With this service, the virtual human would be able to guide them on the information they need and be sent directly to that part of the site, with instructions on how to fill out necessary forms.

“Because the program is conversational, it forces the city to rethink the way it does its websites and how it communicates with its residents,” Gagnon said. “The way we do a webpage, for example, is not conversational; it looks like any other government website. Now we are having to rethink how that does sound in conversation."

Gagnon said that because the AI assistant is conversational, it gives more access to those not technologically savvy.

“When I think about my parents or my wife’s parents, they are not going to go to a website, but they can have a quick conversation,” Gagnon said. "That conversation with a digital human will take them immediately to the resource or information that they are looking for."

According to Gagnon, long term, the virtual human should be able to cover any information on the website. He said that residents would be able to put in a 311 ticket for stuff like potholes or broken traffic lights.

New information can be learned by the virtual human overnight for anything added to the website, which makes it flexible for receiving new information to share. Gagnon gave an example of the recent flooding event in the city, where people could get the information right away and be able to get to the needed department and fill out the appropriate forms.

The virtual human will be limited to city knowledge and services and will be a general site to get any information unrelated to the city.

Gagnon said that the initial cost for the virtual human program, paid to Dell Technologies, will go toward the software and pay for development. He said there would be a yearly cost to maintain the virtual human, for using the server’s development, and troubleshooting.

“I think we are the first city in the country that is going to do this,” Gagnon said. “This has been done in businesses with many commercial and private sector businesses using this technology. We are the first to look at applying this technology to city and local government.”

According to Gagnon, his previous experience with technology organizations allowed him to reach out to developers to find out what AI applications could be applied to enable getting information out to the city. This led to the proposed contract with Dell Technologies.

Emphasizing the importance of making city information more accessible to its residents, Gagnon said that this would eliminate having to search the website for a specific need. Also, to eliminate the language barrier, the virtual human would be able to communicate in more than 90 unique languages.

He also said that unlike CHAT GP or other AI programs, this program will not try to answer questions that are beyond the city knowledge base. It will simply state that it does not have that information.

Asked if the new program would eliminate the ability to communicate with a real person in the city, Gagnon said there would still be that capability.

“There will always be the ability to speak with a real person if needed, “Gagnon said. “In commercial applications, we are seeing at least 82% of questions can be answered by a virtual human. I think the need for human interactions will be reduced, but we are not eliminating that possibility."

Financially, Gagnon said that the benefit of this program would be the savings in freeing up individuals from departments to perform other tasks while being able to answer more than 80% of questions from residents.

By September, Gagnon said that the first department models will be available for testing. He said that a web provider would be chosen based on the model built by the city. Over the next 12 months, Gagnon thinks this program will be rolled out department by department. He also said that he hopes to have the public engage in some testing to ensure the best available experience.

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