Artificial intelligence and the promise of a changing federal landscape

Artificial intelligence is one of the emerging technologies that has the potential to drastically change how the government operates, according to a new Deloitte research report.

The future of federal IT belongs to CIOs who can build flexible, nimble organizations able to maximize the advantage of existing technologies like cloud services and automated machine intelligence while laying the groundwork for a range of emerging technologies on the horizon.

That’s according to a new report on government technology trends for 2017 published Wednesday by Deloitte. Researchers identified eight technologies they believe have an opportunity to disrupt and change the way the federal government leverages information, data and software over the next two years.

Some are a continuation of existing trends that are already established, like IT consolidation and greater reliance on cloud-based software and services. Others, like artificial intelligence, mixed reality and nanotechnology veer more into the outer edges of what is currently possible today, but may have far more relevance a few years down the line.

Scott Buchholtz, federal chief technology officer at Deloitte, said he is optimistic that the changing federal landscape will provide both the necessary space and incentive for CIOs to start thinking beyond their old legacy architectures.

“I believe that some of the changing demographics in the marketplace, some of the restrictions on budgets that we’re likely to see and some of the convergence going on are likely to make government more open to automation and the role of technology…that a lot of our commercial clients have been using for years,” said Buchholtz.

That includes tools like artificial intelligence, machine learning, along with virtual and augmented reality. Buccholtz said these still-nascent technologies have the potential for broad application in federal IT, but need more trailblazers willing to create successful and relevant test cases.

Last year, the Obama administration encouraged agencies to create their own “high-risk, high-reward” research on AI, remarking, “the walls between humans and AI systems are slowly beginning to erode.” Last October, the General Services Administration launched new digital communities to provide agency guidance on how to incorporate AI and mixed reality.

According to Deniece Peterson, director of federal market analysis at Deltek (disclosure: the author previously worked at Deltek), this has set the stage for IT managers to start laying the groundwork for some these technologies in 2017 and begin pilot and test programs to build a case for broader adoption down the line.

“When it comes to dollars, a lot of this is stuff that’s popping up in R&D [budgets] so when they want to expand it, they have an example to point to,” Peterson said.

Breaking down the silos between IT and the agencies they serve is another trend that is expected to accelerate over the next two years. Building on past consolidation efforts, “IT unbounded” is Deloitte’s term for the process federal CIOs are using to change their operations in order to better match the nimble, adaptable nature of their private sector counterparts.

These efforts might get a boost in the form of a new president who hails from the private sector and has often spoke of making government work more like a business.

“I believe that the new administration is placing a very different focus than has traditionally been the case on technology and management of technology,” Buchholtz said. “We’re still in the early days, so it remains to be seen, but there are many indications that there’s going to be a much higher expectation for outcomes and results, particularly in the technology space.”

Peterson said a Trump administration may have the will to change the way federal IT works, but bureaucratic red tape and the long-term nature of the budget, appropriations and contracting cycles perpetually leave agencies dealing with yesterday’s technology solutions.

Absent passage of legislative reform such as the Modernizing Government Technology Act, that process is likely to continue hampering efforts to make the federal government more nimble.

“If the Trump administration’s intent could meet with Congress passing [IT modernization reform], it will be a step in the right direction,” said Peterson.

Rounding out Deloitte’s other trends are a greater reliance on “inevitable architecture” like cloud-based services and automated technologies that have been steadily gaining traction over the past few years, along with a list of “exponential technologies” like quantum computing, nanotechnology and biotechnology. These are the tools that Deloitte thinks will form the foundations of the modern IT architecture. To get there, Buchholtz said IT managers will need the freedom to think outside the box and discard the risk-adverse mindset that currently dominates federal decision making.

“I think it’s important to realize that we collectively as a country have created an environment where failed experiments are punished disproportionately to success,” Buchholtz said. “We need to figure out how to better enable those with vision to fail small and fail quickly, but also get up, keep going and learn [the necessary] lessons.”