AI chatbots

Is it time to say goodbye to Singapore’s “Ask Jamie” AI chatbots?

When GovTech conceptualized “Ask Jamie” in 2014, AI chatbots were still pretty much in their infancy. Ask Jamie was designed as a virtual assistant that can be implemented on government agency websites and trained to be able to answer queries within specific domains.

Singapore has implemented Jamie in over 70 government agency websites. Some of Jamie’s basic tasks include providing responses to citizens who have queries on basic information. Over the years, the AI chatbot evolved to handle more complex queries and issues as well.

According to GovTech, Jamie taps on its Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine to understand the questions posed by the public and responds with an appropriate answer. When an answer entails multiple permutations, the AI chatbot can be trained to ask follow-on questions to refine the answer to one relevant to the user’s query.

However, things took a turn recently when the AI chatbot gave different answers to certain queries. The Straits Times reported that Ask Jamie on the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) website left some internet users amused, as it dished out family planning advice when asked about Covid-19.

Screenshots showed that when the AI chatbot was asked about the next steps to be taken for a positive Covid-19 patient, it replied to the user to practice safe sex instead. The AI chatbot has since been taken down from MOH’s website.

The gaffe by Ask Jamie indicates some of the problems most agencies and businesses are facing with AI chatbots today. As the technology learns human speech and tries to understand it, in many cases the meaning may be lost when trying to process the message. For example, asking a telco chatbot when your bill is due could result in the chatbot only giving information on the amount that is due.

Simple mistakes like this often irk consumers. In fact, statistics have shown that informational chatbots are most popular in healthcare, telecommunications, and banking.

Failure to provide the right information to customers can not only lead to them venting out in social media but also move to other alternatives.

The ubiquitous 'Ask Jamie' popup on the IRAS website. AI chatbots such as Jamie are used in a variety of public and private industries to help attend to customer queries.

The ubiquitous ‘Ask Jamie’ popup on the IRAS website. AI chatbots similar to Jamie are used in a variety of public and private industries to help attend to customer queries.

Statistics also show that 85% of customer interactions will be handled without human agents by the end of 2021 and that 50% of businesses are planning to spend more on chatbots than on mobile applications. Since the pandemic started, 37% of users also prefer to use a chatbot to get information faster, especially in times of emergency.

For Ask Jamie, its days of serving customers may be numbered as GovTech prepares to replace the AI chatbot with a next-generation virtual assistant platform. VICA (Virtual Intelligent Chat Assistant) leverages natural language processing engines, machine learning, and AI to learn and understand conversations to improve virtual and phone interactions citizens and businesses have with the Singapore government agencies.

Being engine-agnostic, VICA will be able to leverage the latest NLP technology to achieve better performance and accuracy. VICA is already powering chatbots on Singapore’s Energy Market Authority website, the Singaporean government’s website, and COVID-19 WhatsApp channels. GovTech aims to eventually replace all of Ask Jamie AI chatbots with VICA in the near future.

VICA will also be progressively enhanced to be a unified chat frontend for common branding across all government ministries and agencies. It will also enable Singpass Integration and have live chat escalation plus offer support for multiple chat platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram.

Poor Jamie.