UNIVERSAL Credit claimants could have to ask robots for help answering their questions in future as officials look to work with artificial intelligence experts.
The Department for Work and Pensions has issued a call out to companies for more information on developing AI, chatbot and robotic solutions to cut costs and save time.
Mandarins insist the chatbots tools will only be deployed internally, but staff at the Department have hinted it could be used for members of the public.
The notice said the DWP were “interested in understanding which suppliers” are offering services in “developing robotic solutions” and using “virtual assistants (chat-bots)”.
And it also said: “DWP is intending to meet interested suppliers for further discussion.”
Accompanying notes confirmed the DWP plans could cover jobcentres, disability and carers, child maintenance, pensions and Universal Credit.
In a blog last year a senior DWP staffer spoke of using chatbots to “respond to routine enquiries”, and were first working on an internal project.
The tech could cut down the number of calls the department gets by hundreds of thousands every week by helping answer simple questions, they said.
And another staffer said they would like to see the digital team explore using chatbots for “simple customer queries” in future but they were “very early in our thinking” on it at the moment.
It’s understood that other Departments are also looking into their own uses of AI and robotics to make their systems more efficient.
In 2017 the DWP set up its own hub to work on robotics – The Intelligent Automation Garage – which has received millions of pounds of funding.
They have developed programmes to order documents for people on Personal Independence Payments, and have built a chatbot to use internally supporting colleagues contacting their security helpdesk.
The team has already delivered savings for the Department by making routine tasks automatic.
And digital teams have been worked on web chats with benefit advisers in the past.
But there were concerns about extending the technology.
The SNP’s Work and Pensions spokesperson Neil Gray MP said: “Whilst any means of opening access to support is welcome, it’s imperative on the UK government to ensure that chatbots and AI do not replace face-to-face support, which many vulnerable claimants rely on.
“It is difficult to see how reports of artificial intelligence would be able to deal with complex claims or indeed provide the adequate support for vulnerable claimants.
“We already know that many claimants have found digital platforms to be tricky to navigate and many claimants do not have easy access to internet services.
“Before any changes to services accessible to the public, the UK government must ensure a full impact assessment is undertaken to see how any potential change could affect these groups.
“Given the already wide-ranging problems that Universal Credit has faced since its mis-handled roll-out by the Tories, it would be utterly foolish to increase reliance on digital services without proper safeguards and support for those who require it.”
And MPs questioned why the Department said it’s unable to transfer data from old claims onto new Universal Credit ones using automation processes, but is now exploring AI.
Liberal Democrat Work & Pensions Spokesperson Christine Jardine MP said: “If they’re so interested in automation, they can start by changing the shockingly Luddite next phase of the rollout for people moving from legacy benefits to Universal Credit.
“Everyone affected will have to make a fresh application for Universal Credit.
“Charities such as MIND and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warn that vulnerable people will struggle making an online application and could have their benefits cut off after three months.”
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A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “There are absolutely no plans to replace DWP staff through robotics.
“This supplier notice is simply part of supporting our staff to deliver a good service to the public by removing unnecessary repetitive administration so we can process claims faster.
“All of our customers continue to have access to personal support through their local Jobcentre and helplines staffed by people.”
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