Dec 6, 2023 - News

AI is a boon for Washington — and its federal workforce

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Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A year after ChatGPT burst into the world, a once wary Beltway establishment sees it as a tool for real government efficiency.

Why it matters: These are dreams made of, say, faster passport renewals or AI ferreting out tax cheats — and of contractors cashing in on a new Washington boom.

What I'm hearing: The talk of the town has flipped from fears of the singularity to an embrace of chatbots.

  • Blanket bans are out. Instead, President Biden recently ordered agencies to hire chief AI officers and provide employees "access to secure and reliable generative AI."
  • Use cases abound. Northern Virginia's tech corridor is building tools to process government paperwork faster than pencil pushers.
  • Spy chiefs want AI to one day help space satellites repair themselves.
  • Contractors are raring to harness the uber-computing power for new surveillance tools.

Dinner party talk invariably turns to an AI arms race with China.

  • They are winning on producing STEM graduates, Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth said earlier this week at a cocktail conversation about AI. The U.S. has more AI startups, the White House recently noted.

What they're saying: "We have to have AI," says Whitworth, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Much of its work involves taking photos of Earth from space.

  • Turns out, AI is great at processing those images. And when trained properly, it can flag anomalies. "It's not going to get tired," Whitworth said at an event held by the Washington AI Network.

State of play: It didn't take long for ChatGPT to show up across the 2.2 million federal workforce.

  • It began with stories of curious rank-and-file using ChatGPT to draft emails and PowerPoints, mirroring private sector worker bees.
  • It grew to tailor-made solutions. Last week, McLean-based software company Appian announced it sprinted to build a contract-writing tool for the U.S. Army.
  • Down the block from Appian, Booz Allen Hamilton aims for up to $700 million in government AI contracts.

The big picture: "Chat GPT is ready for duty," Appian co-founder Michael Beckley tells me. "Now the hard work begins with the bureaucracy to catch up."

  • Right now, a top use case is having AI ingest thousands of pages of legalese and gov-speak. Just imagine an AI bot becoming an expert on something insanely specific — like labor contract clauses for an Air Force task order. It can then spit back out answers and pull up source material. Then a human can make faster decisions.
  • Steve Jobs once called computers a "bicycle for our minds." AI evangelists see the bots as a machete for red tape.

Yes, but: Could the AI hallucinate made-up regulations or produce a fake PDF file?

  • By only feeding it specific government documents, the AI bot can base its answers only on the documents it is provided, Beckley says.

What we're watching: AI rules are a hodgepodge across federal Washington. But President Biden's executive order from late October brought more clarity, and more AI permissions.

  • Take the Department of Homeland Security, for example, which recently declared that staff can use AI for "generating first drafts of documents that a human would subsequently review," according to an Oct. 24 memo.
  • "I have personally found these tools valuable in these use cases already," Eric Hysen, the agency's chief information officer, told employees.

✍🏼This column is 100% handmade. Or human-made. No artificial brains, chatbots, or humanoids were involved in its creation. Town Talker is a weekly column on local power and money. Send your angry rants to ChatGPT. Send your tips to [email protected]

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