May 12 2023

ETIC 2023: 4 Emerging Technology Takeaways Federal IT Leaders Shared This Week

From artificial intelligence and automation to devices of the future and supply chains, agencies continue to improve efficiency and security.

An increasing number of agencies are cautiously considering artificial intelligence implementations, with multiple federal IT leaders sharing potential use cases at the ACT-IAC Emerging Technology & Innovation Conference this week.

The Social Security Administration wants to support disability examiners by having AI simplify the data they need to review to make benefits determinations, but first the agency needs to understand how the requisite algorithms function, said Deputy CIO Patrick Newbold on Tuesday.

His comments came after State Department Deputy CIO Laura Williams said her agency is open to using generative AI with public-facing data to answer questions on everything from obtaining visas to reporting the birth of U.S. citizens abroad. Williams expressed concern about allowing generative AI inside the department’s network without first establishing a responsible AI policy, and similarly Newbold said SSA wants to ensure AI isn’t making any disability determinations before deploying the technology.

“What we really are focused on is not necessarily the tech but the processes because, at the end of the day, we need the human to make decisions,” Newbold said. “Not the AI, not the technology.”

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Prioritizing Automations That Improve Employees’ Experiences

SSA started considering AI to improve its employee (and, thereby, its user) experience, a common theme among agencies embracing automation.

The State Department is developing a classification system for declassification so that automation can handle cut-and-dried cases where documents should clearly either be withheld or released to the public, Williams said. Documents are declassified every 25 years, which was a completely manual process until recently.

Retired State Department employees still return on a volunteer basis to review documents up for declassification, a process that takes a year. But soon they’ll have to review documents in the 1997 to 2003 window, when the use of email and electronic records began, exponentially increasing the number of cables issued from about 100,000 to 600,000, Williams said.

The hope is that automation can handle 70 percent of the workload, with reviewers tackling the trickier diplomatic items. The State Department will take lessons learned as its automation pilot now moves into production and apply them to the automated review of Freedom of Information Act requests, Williams said.

EXPLORE: Military branches look to expand 5G proofs of concept.

Federal IT Leaders Seek Devices of the Future

A third trend covered at ETIC was federal IT leaders calling for devices of the future.

Defense Intelligence Agency Deputy CIO E.P. Mathew said the Department of Defense wants to collaborate with industry to redefine the desktop and develop a device that capitalizes on recent advances in cloud computing.

Similarly, Office of Personnel Management CIO Guy Cavallo pointed out that mobile devices such as smartphones no longer lack the data throughput to pull up a database. While mobile device manufacturers have started to lower costs, allowing agencies to supply their remote employees with phones and tablets, a combined device would be ideal.

Patrick Newbold
What we really are focused on is not necessarily the tech but the processes because, at the end of the day, we need the human to make decisions.”

Patrick Newbold Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Systems, DCIO, Social Security Administration

“There’s been talk for years that we’re going to have this convergence of a tablet and a phone in one device,” Cavallo said. “I’m still waiting to see that happen because it’s got to be small enough to fit in your pocket, yet powerful enough to be able to type on form.”

The Bureau of Industry and Security within the Department of Commerce would be interested in “souped-up iPhones” hooked up to docks for doing work, said CIO Nagesh Rao.

LEARN MORE: How agencies can keep software supply chains secure.

How Agencies Can Better Protect Supply Chains

Federal cybersecurity practitioners shared steps the government is taking to shore up software and 5G supply chains and ensure components developed by foreign adversaries — China in particular — aren’t putting networks at risk.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is developing a software bill of materials ecosystem that companies can publish machine-readable inventories of interrelated components to so agencies have greater visibility into potential vulnerabilities. But those agencies still need to develop procurement language for requiring SBOMs in solicitations and establish software assurance reviews of the data they contain.

Until then, SBOMs remain unactionable.

Meanwhile, the State Department is working on countermeasures in the event foreign adversaries — again, primarily China — exploit 5G infrastructure to remotely stop the motorcades of U.S. diplomats abroad. The technology already exists, and overseas embassies and posts are reliant on foreign communications infrastructure that, like it or not, may have been installed by China.

“5G, 6G, IoT — it’s going to impact just about every critical infrastructure sector identified by” the Department of Homeland Security, said Louis Blazy, who leads the State Department’s Cybersecurity-Supply Chain Risk Management and Emerging Technologies Working Group. “And individually, it’s going to impact you as well, in terms of your privacy and in terms of your safety.”

To learn more about the 2023 ACT-IAC event, visit our conference page, and follow us on Twitter at @FedTechMagazine to see behind-the-scenes moments.

Caiaimage/Martin Barraud

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