DHS boosts AI cred with ‘next level’ chatbot development

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has revealed its latest iteration of digital assistant, announcing the creation of a “next level” AI chatbot to be deployed across a suite of online government services.

Dubbed PIPA – or the Platform Independent Personal Assistant – the DHS’s Augmented Intelligence (AI) Centre of Excellence, launched at the end of last year, was assigned to develop the bot. 

While PIPA is expected to be embedded within several customer-facing government service platforms, its first known deployment will be on the DHS's own Centrelink Express Plus mobile app.

The digital assistant will be able to pre-empt and support customer queries, as well as offering assistance with online form lodgements and income declarations, according to Human Services and Digital Transformation Minister Michael Keenan.

“PIPA will also be able to personalise that support and tailor it to an individual’s circumstances and needs. For example, it will be able to translate documents into other languages, or offer plain English interpretations of correspondence sent to a customer’s online mailbox,” Keenan added.

“All of these functions will dramatically improve the customer experience for those using our growing number of digital channels, especially those who are new to the online world and need a helping hand to find their way around,” Keenan said.

This is hardly the first experiment in AI-backed digital assistants for the Human Services department. In addition to the similarly platform-specific ‘Sam’ and ‘Oliver’, released in 2017, the DHS last year released ‘Charles’, a dedicated myGov digital assistant, built to assist customers with queries about the new platform, as well as guidance with creating a new account, linking new services, and help if an account is locked or suspended.

However, PIPA is the agency's first standalone bot, meaning it can be used across multiple government agencies. Crucially, the bot can be embedded within web and mobile apps, as well as within third-party personal assistants, such as Google Home and Alexa. 

According to Keenan, the gang of five digital assistants released so far by the DHS have answered "more than 2.3 million questions, reducing the need for people to have to pick up a phone or come into a service centre for help.”

“This is what our digital transformation program is all about – making life simpler and easier for all Australians.”

Like Charles, Sam and Oliver, PIPA will be backed by Microsoft’s chatbot engine, including Microsoft's Bot Framework and Natural language translation.

The new chatbot is expected to be launched to the public by the end of this year.