Axios What's Next

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Cities are turning to "digital humans" to help residents β€” especially newcomers β€” access the municipal services they need, Jennifer reports today.

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1 big thing: "Digital humans" for city hall

Illustration of a city hall facade with a giant cursor hovering over it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As cities and states invest in digital assistants to make their websites easier to use, the city of Amarillo, Texas, is hoping to set a new standard with a "digital human" that speaks dozens of languages and can help longtime residents and newcomers alike navigate City Hall, Jennifer reports.

Why it matters: While corporations have been pouring money into AI-enabled features, governments are playing catch-up, using pandemic relief money for new technology that improves public service.

Driving the news: The new "digital human" that Amarillo is building will use a female avatar, appearing on the city's website by early 2024.

  • It will answer queries and help people request government services.

What they're saying: "This will actually become our digital version of 311," Richard Gagnon, Amarillo's chief information officer, tells Axios. (The city's human-staffed 311 service isn't going away, he notes.)

  • Amarillo has the most refugees per capita of any Texas city, Gagnon says, and the "digital human" is meant to ensure that "all of our citizens will get equal service."
  • "I have a middle school speaking 62 languages and dialects," he says. "It's a big challenge."

How it works: Rather than hiring 62 interpreters, Amarillo is using technology to "integrate conversational AI into our websites" so that everyone can chat with the city online, Gagnon says.

  • "Not only can you ask simple questions, like 'When is the library open?' but it can also direct you, so you can say, 'Hey, I would like to book a spot in John Stiff Park.'"
  • "It'll take you to that website and walk you through how to do that," Gagnon says. "And oh, by the way, you can do that in 62 different languages."
  • "If you're just an average citizen wanting information, now you don't have to navigate [a website] β€” you can just ask it questions, like, 'What did the city spend on IT this year?'" he says. "It turns the whole interaction between resident and government into a conversation, which is really what we're after."
A demonstration video shows an example of a digital assistant similar to the one Amarillo is developing with an AI company called UneeQ, which specializes in digital humans.
A demonstration video shows an example of a digital assistant similar to the one Amarillo is developing with an AI company called UneeQ, which specializes in digital humans. Image: Courtesy of the City of Amarillo and Dell Technologies

Amarillo's forthcoming digital human is "basically a huge leapfrog from what you've seen in the past," says Alexander Keller, chief technology officer for services at Dell Technologies, the city's lead vendor.

  • "It's far more intelligent," Keller tells Axios. "It's intuitive. It knows what you mean. It's far more accurate β€” it feels like you're talking to a person."

Between the lines: State and local governments β€” flush with pandemic relief funds, but short of municipal workers β€” are eager to find ways to serve residents efficiently, and digital assistants look like a good answer.

Zoom in: Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah were early adopters of chatbot technology β€” as were cities like Austin, Boston and Phoenix β€” but the digital assistant Amarillo is rolling out is a next-generation version that'll likely be more robust.

  • One city that may have beat Amarillo to the punch: Edmonton, Alberta, has a preliminary digital assistant that's being used for transit and waste services, with more features to come.
  • Los Angeles has also been at the forefront, integrating Alexa into its website (so you can say, "Hey, Alexa, ask L.A. City...") and introducing a virtual assistant for businesses, named Chip.

The bottom line: Gagnon estimates that 60%-80% of Amarillo residents will be satisfied to do business with the online helper.

  • But "some people are just not going to want to talk to a digital assistant β€” they're just not," he says.

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2. πŸ“Š Political trust hits low point

Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans' views of the U.S. political system have reached new lows, according to a survey that reveals near-record distrust of the government, disgust with both political parties and general exhaustion over all the divisiveness, Axios' Stef W. Kight reports.

Why it matters: The Pew Research Center survey reflects the growing distaste for the nation's politics as congressional infighting threatens a government shutdown and the 2024 presidential race appears headed for a Biden-Trump matchup most Americans don't want.

What they found: Four times as many Americans have unfavorable views of both parties today than they did in 2002 β€” an all-time high, with Republicans and Democrats equally unpopular.

  • Faith in the government is near a 70-year low, with just 16% of the public saying they trust the federal government at least most of the time.

2 in 3 Americans say they always or often feel "exhausted" when they think about politics.

  • The top two words they use to describe U.S. politics: "divisive" and "corrupt."

Zoom in: The problem could get worse as time goes on, as younger people are far more likely to be critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

  • 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds had unfavorable views of both parties, compared with just 16% of those 65 or older.

Read the rest.

3. First medical + AI degree program

Illustration of AI elements coming out of a doctor's suit where their head should be.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The first known dual degree in the U.S. to combine medicine and artificial intelligence is now available, Axios San Antonio's Megan Stringer reports.

  • The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and UT at San Antonio have teamed up to pilot a 5-year doctor of medicine and master of science in artificial intelligence program.

Why it matters: AI is emerging as a potentially powerful medical tool, creating a larger need for people with deep knowledge in both medicine and computer science.

What they're saying: "This unique partnership promises to offer groundbreaking innovation that will lead to new therapies and treatments to improve health and quality of life," UT System chancellor James Milliken said in a statement.

Read the rest.

4. Xbox plans leaked

Microsoft's Brooklin console, as seen in a presentation released by U.S. federal court.

Microsoft's Brooklin console, as seen in a presentation released by U.S. federal court. Image: Microsoft

Microsoft has been planning a refresh to its Xbox gaming consoles for potential release next year β€” and has mapped out an ambitious approach to a new generation that will follow in 2028.

  • That's according to newly leaked documents, Axios Gaming's Stephen Totilo reports.

Why it matters: The documents offer a stunningly clear β€” if potentially dated β€” view of Microsoft's gaming plans.

Driving the news: The details appeared in court files released over the weekend as part of the Federal Trade Commission's lawsuit to block Microsoft's $69 billion bid for Activision Blizzard.

  • New versions of the current Xbox Series X and S models could be on tap for next year, according to one of the leaked attachments.
  • The same files showed a new Xbox controller with a tilt sensor, quieter buttons and the ability to connect to a mobile app.

What's next: Microsoft's next console after the Xbox Series X and S would represent not just a new device but a new "ecosystem generation," per a plan detailed in a separate file.

Yes, but: It's unclear if Microsoft still plans to release these devices, or on what timeline.

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Big thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

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