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Virtual Assistant Technology Holds Promise for USACE

Published Nov. 8, 2019
Page from Communications Update about IPAs

Page from Communications Update about IPAs

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA.   Devices such as Amazon’s Echo or Google Assistant are two of many types of intelligent personal assistant (IPA) devices that have become increasingly popular over the last few years.  Intelligent personal assistants, also known as digital or virtual assistants, are electronic devices that can interpret audible commands and provide responses in some capacity, visually or audibly.  Technology available for one’s home is quickly outpacing the common technology found in your average government office.  It begs the question, when will the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers obtain these devices and how will they be used?  This question also leads to more questions about compatibility with existing technologies and the feasibility of using these devices in the future.  Let’s discuss some of the devices’ capabilities, potential in the workplace and challenges for the organization.

These IPA devices are cloud-based technologies that rely on the internet, artificial intelligence and data streams.  For example, if you ask “what is the weather?”, the device will use the cloud-based application and artificial intelligence to understand what you are saying, create an internet query similar to an internet search, and provide a logical response using streaming weather data into a display or audible or visual format fashion.  These devices may be required to connect to smart phone or computer, and at a minimum need an internet connection.  Some devices are preset routines and some can be customized or bring in other’s customizations for further functions.

The applications for these IPAs are numerous and are likely to simplify, complement, enhance, or overtake existing office tools.  Some of their features likely to be useful in the workplace include: facilitated and autodialed phone calls, web and video conference calls, intercom features, note taking, reminders, voice-activated devices and an expansion of the “internet of things,” answering questions and more.  For example, a simple voice command in a conference room could instantly and simultaneously lower the lights and a presentation screen, autodial into a conference line, and start a presentation while creating a manuscript and recording of the presentation.  Official guidance could be made “readable” by such devices and serve as a talking reference book.  In the future, meetings could have notes auto-transcribed, organized and managed with little human intervention. 

IPA functionality will likely someday improve business processes, but it also can help serve the public better.  In some cases, this is already occurring.  The General Services Administration launched a pilot program in 2017 with the purpose “to guide dozens of federal programs make public service information available through automated, self-service platforms for the home and office such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Facebook Messenger” (GSA 2017).  Through this program, prototypes were created to inform the public about tornado warnings, answer questions about taxes, permits and other government benefits, and serve as a career center.  Also, non-governmental programmers are turning government data into applications for IPAS.  For example, a “Federal Government Operating Status” app can now be added to any Amazon IPA, and users can ask the device about the operating status for Federal offices in the DC area as published by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  GSA went on to launch a government-wide community on Artificial Intelligence for Citizen Services Program in October 2016 (GSA 2016).  Further, the Department of Defense Innovation Board took up the issue of artificial intelligence in July 2018 and released (OK?) principles in October 2019 ( 2019).

However, like any technology, the good comes along with the bad and this is why future implementation on IPAs within the workplace may be challenging.  First, there is the question of digital eavesdropping.  Who is listening? Is this being recorded? Should this be recorded or listened to?  The potential security concerns and the ability to safeguard all people and devices connected to IPAs is a huge task.  Threats are ever evolving and changing.  Also, internet connections are mandatory and some may require a smart phone connection.  Not all offices have smart phones, an internet connection, a reliable connection or a large enough connection for a broad expansion of internet use.  Interoperability between different brands could prove problematic.  Likewise, any loss of power could reset or turn these devices off.  Finally, the cost for new devices would likely have to be squeezed from the current IT budget, which could slow implementation and the benefits of connecting multiple devices would not be realized.  Going back to the presentation example, an IPA would need to be connected through another device that talks to the computer, projector, phone, lights and/or power outlet to ensure an in-person or online presentation goes off without a hitch.  As the technology progress, challenges will expand.  These are just a few potential challenges present today.

Intelligent Personal Assistants offer potential for USACE within the workplace and to better serve the public.  Devices may save time, money, and improve decision making, but they don’t come without risks.  USACE can begin the process of adoption through examining currently available, public data and ensuring this is compatible with IPAs through data streams or an Application Programming Interface (API).  The Institute for Water Resources launched a library ( in recent years that fully uses APIs.  Data streams continue to emerge, and they could potentially be incorporated into future IPA applications and help the public find information more easily.  Can you imagine asking your computer, “Which port has the most traffic in 2017?” then receiving an audible answer to the question using USACE data?  Or perhaps IPAs will read aloud some of the reports published by the Institute?  The future is bright and the potential is great.

The USACE does not endorse any products mentioned in this article.

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