The General Service Administration’s (GSA) Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence (AI CoE) has launched an Applied AI Challenge that seeks to bring forth industry solutions for AI technologies, the AI CoE announced. The challenge aims to find solutions to aid citizen service delivery in areas of natural language processing engines, unified platforms, computer vision engines, and general AI functions.
The challenge was first launched April 18 on Challenge.gov, and GSA announced May 9 that it was extending the application timeline to May 27 in hopes of getting broader participation from the AI community and industry. The challenge carries four prizes of $12,500 each, as well as the potential for acquisition of services from the Federal government.
“The applied AI challenge offers an exciting opportunity for American startups, industry, and even nonprofits to share their innovative technologies in the AI space with the Federal government,” Ron Williams, the program lead for the Applied AI Challenge said in an interview with MeriTalk.
“We know there are technologies available that can help improve service delivery to the American people, and we’re hoping that the AI challenge and its participants will allow us to assess a wide range of AI technologies on factors such as mission delivery, technical readiness, feasibility, and even AI alignment and people-centered values,” Williams added.
Williams’ official title at GSA is director of Cloud Adoption and Infrastructure Optimization for GSA’s IT Modernization Centers of Excellence. Williams has previously served as the director of cloud.gov at GSA and as director of IT for communications at the United States Department of Agriculture before that.
Williams emphasized the importance the challenge holds in helping GSA find technologies to better serve the American public and said that the agency is looking at how these technologies can be used for everything from cybersecurity to investment of safety infrastructure, and more.
“As we consider the adoption of AI tools, focusing on the benefits that it provides the American people, and how we can, for example, reduce the friction points in access to government services is really important,” he said. “And so, if we can use AI technologies to identify gaps in our existing service delivery, then we can deliver a better experience to the American people.”
What is GSA Looking For?
The challenge carries a grand prize of $12,500 for one prototype from each of the four areas of natural language processing engines, unified platforms, computer vision engines, and general AI functions, totaling a $50,000 prize pot.
Applicants will need to submit a white paper explaining how their solution fits into one of those four areas and how they can potentially benefit Federal civilian agencies, as well as software integrations, sample AI results datasets, and industry use cases.
GSA also said that applicants should aim to focus their white papers on how their AI solutions can be used to aid Federal civilian agency missions within the areas of the climate and environment, pandemic preparedness, infrastructure, or equity.
Further, Williams said the agency is broadly looking to connect with the AI community and said, in that regard, the challenge has already been successful.
“We’ve already seen some successes just in the feedback that we’ve gotten from the challenge, even from non-participants that are simply interested in the AI space,” he said. “The opportunity to connect with them has already started to occur for Federal employees.”
While the challenge doesn’t guarantee any acquisition opportunities for winners, Williams said there is a possibility for those opportunities and, called that the best-case scenario.
“Honestly, if an agency discovered, acquired, and deployed a new AI technology to improve their service delivery, that would surely be a success,” he said. “Realistically, increasing the awareness of AI products in the Federal space, developing a culture of innovation within the Federal AI community, and connecting with industry and nonprofit organizations so we can learn more from their experience in the space would be key success factors.”
“Any one of those would be a positive outcome,” Williams said.
A Focus on Citizen Services
The focus on how AI can aid Federal delivery of citizen services comes at a time when the Federal government is broadly focusing on the importance of improving the customer experience (CX) during citizen interactions with the government.
In December, President Biden released an executive order entirely based on improving citizens’ CX. The administration’s Presidential Management Agenda (PMA) also has a heavy emphasis on CX improvements.
“Adopting new technologies that are aligned to agency missions allows us to better serve the American people,” Williams reiterated. “We saw that in the migration of services from paper processes to online then, increasing trust and reliability when transitioning to cloud services, and now we’re at the onset of AI adoption.”
Williams said while it is generally beneficial that the challenge aligns with a broader CX push, the timing for the challenge has more to do with the general maturity of AI technologies and keeping pace with those developments than anything else.
“When we look at the timing of this challenge, it really comes down to making sure we’re delivering the best services to the American people,” Williams said. “Given the maturity of some AI segments, it’s likely that we need to do more than just walk the walk but run the course to keep pace with rapid development in the space. So now seems like a very apt time.”
The deadline for white paper submissions has been officially extended from May 16 until May 27. From there, GSA will take until June 20 to review all the white papers and notify up to 16 finalists that they have been selected.
The finalists will be composed of up to four from each of the subject areas of: natural language processing engines, unified platforms, computer vision engines, and general AI functions. By June 20, GSA will also have begun procurement actions for “enabling finalist acquisition, if necessary.”
Finally, on June 30, the finalists will present their prototype at GSA’s Applied AI Challenge Industry Day, with the hope of receiving one of the grand prizes or – even better – a potential acquisition.
As for why companies should participate in the challenge, Williams said it’s a question he’s received from every organization he’s approached about it. He says it’s simple: the opportunity for Federal eyes on their solutions.
“The important thing is beyond the $50,000 in prize money that we’re offering, we’re offering the challenge finalists an opportunity to share their product with Federal agencies, and we may use the competitive process of this challenge as part of a future acquisition,” Williams said.
“We’ve developed an AI challenge to connect companies with the Federal government’s AI practitioners and staff that are really interested in bringing these innovations to their agencies,” he added. “And so this is an opportunity for companies with AI products to show us how their tool can be used for public service.”