The Citizen’s Perspective on the Use of AI in Government: Cautious Optimism

Credit: MOMI PHOTOGRAPHIE Michael Moreau

Artificial intelligence (AI) has beneficial applications in many areas of government, including traffic management—with data collected in real time from traffic lights, CCTV cameras, and other sources enabling traffic flow optimization—and customer service centers manned by robots that use AI to answer questions. Algorithms and machine-learning techniques, in which computers analyze large amounts of data to detect statistical patterns and develop models that can be used to make accurate predictions, are rapidly becoming key tools for governments.

However, despite the obvious opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness, the role of AI, automation, and robotics in government policy and service delivery remains contentious. For example, can you prevent algorithms based on historical data from perpetuating or reinforcing decades of conscious or unconscious bias? When is it acceptable to use “black box” deep-learning models, where the logic used for decisions cannot possibly be explained or understood even by the data scientists designing the underlying algorithms?

To gain insights into citizens’ attitudes about and perceptions of the use of AI in government, BCG surveyed more than 14,000 internet users around the world as part of its biannual Digital Government Benchmarking study. BCG asked this broad cross section of citizens to tell us:

  • How comfortable they are with certain decisions being made by a computer rather than a human being
  • What concerns they have about the use of AI by governments
  • How concerned they are about the impact of AI on the economy and jobs

Our key findings center around the types of AI use cases survey respondents indicated they would support, the way that attitudes about government and demographics affect support, and the ethical and privacy aspects of using AI in government.

  • Citizens were most supportive of using AI for tasks such as transport and traffic optimization, predictive maintenance of public infrastructure, and customer service activities. The majority did not support AI for sensitive decisions associated with the justice system, such as parole board and sentencing recommendations.
  • People in less developed economies and places where perceived levels of corruption are higher also tended to be more supportive of the use of AI. For example, the citizens surveyed in India, China, and Indonesia indicated the strongest support for government applications of AI, while the citizens surveyed in Switzerland, Estonia, and Austria offered the weakest support.
  • Demographic patterns tend to mirror general attitudes toward technology. Millennials and urban dwellers, therefore, demonstrated the greatest support for government use of AI, while older people and those in more rural and remote locations showed less support.
  • Citizens were most concerned about the potential ethical issues, as well as lack of transparency in decision-making, and expressed significant anxiety about AI’s potential to increase automation and the resulting effect on employment.

Citizens generally feel positive about government use of AI, but the level of support varies widely by use case, and many remain hesitant. Citizens expressed a positive net perception of all 13 potential use cases covered in the survey, except decision-making in the justice system. (See Exhibit 1.) For example, 51% of respondents disagreed with using AI to determine innocence or guilt in a criminal trial, and 46% disagreed with its use for making parole decisions. While AI can in theory reduce subjectivity in such decisions, there are still legitimate concerns about the potential for algorithmic error or bias. Furthermore, algorithms cannot truly understand the extenuating circumstances and contextual information that many people believe should be weighed as part of these decisions.

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