What is cognitive government?

By | 4 minute read | November 6, 2017

European parliament. Image by Sebastien Le Derout on Unsplash

Our new Martian friend just landed on Earth and is excited to learn about the latest developments in human technology. In this Q&A series, IBM experts explain complicated topics to a Martian (and you).

Our Martian government is planetary, so functions differently from governments I’ve observed on Earth.

Marquis Cabrera is IBM’s Global Leader of Digital Government Transformation. I asked him to tell me about cognitive government.

What is cognitive government?

Cognitive government improves the lives of citizens. It empowers government officials and agencies to make better decisions as they support vulnerable children and families, health care participants and a variety of beneficiaries.


By reducing data tsunamis to waves. That enables us to surf data more easily, turning it into beautiful insights.

Fascinating. What’s the technology?

It’s a bunch of technologies — machine learning, natural language processing, speech recognition, robotics.

Cognitive solutions are trained, not programmed. The technology learns, understands and empowers. It learns with each interaction and new information.

It’s not artificial intelligence — it’s augmented intelligence. So instead of replacing humans with robots (or aliens, my Martian friend!), cognitive technologies augment the human government workforce. What you get is improved public safety, better transportation, personalized healthcare and education.

My colleague Dr. Julia Gidden says that cognitive government will empower civil servants and public administrators around the world to leapfrog into the transformational age.

I like the sound of that. How does it work?

Cognitive technologies ingest a ton of data. Then you can query a specific answer. Or you can plug in a data set and get a feedback mechanism that tells you what choices you have around the decision you queried.

Can you give an example?

A European city of half a million people uses cognitive technology to better evaluate and distribute social services. In Asia, it’s helping the population interact with government through natural language — not a search bar. A national customs agency is using it to sift through huge amounts of data to uncover fraud and non-compliance.

Doctors here in the US are using cognition to improve their decision-making. Public safety officials use it to find and thwart terrorism and keep people safe. My colleague, IBM VP Tim Paydos, said in GovTech magazine:

“Within 24 hours of the detonation of the [Boston Marathon Bombing], we had acquired 480,000 discrete images and videos of the site, just prior to the detonation, just after and coinciding — with petabytes of information.”

“The challenge is in ingesting all of that information, and then having someone or something go through all of that imagery to find the bad guys… In that body of data lay the information we needed to go after the bad guys.”

So this could make life better for Earthlings?

Come on, my friend, your brain is much bigger than mine. YES: cognitive technology can help Martians, too.

My brain is indeed quite large. This isn’t the first time governments have used technology to help people, right?

The first wave started when governments developed their first web pages. That evolved to being able to download government documents online. Then, citizen developers leveraged APIs and public data to create personalized, self-service experiences for citizens.

What’s an API?

Application programming interface. With API, you have a seamless experience that knocks down digital silos. Instead of paying your car loan or speeding tickets in different places, you could log into one platform and pay them all in a single, unified user experience.

It’s a blended experience, versus digital silos where some experiences are digital and some are not. Like with filing taxes, some states require snail mail; others are digital. Imagine if cognitive government let you pay all your taxes at once. Do you have taxes on Mars?

Taxes are everywhere, Marquis. But that’s another issue. Last question: What are you most excited about when you think about future applications? What inspires you?

I was in Massachusetts recently. There was a kid, I’ll call him Joey. Joey kept getting suspended from school and no one knew why. He’d act out one week a month.

What we found is that Joey was off his medication because his prescription could only be renewed in-person.

My hope is that we create an experience where you have a 360° view of a citizen so that you can anticipate and understand and react to their needs, and serve the citizen in a way that’s beneficial to them and society.

When I think about the potential, it’s that augmented intelligence to be able to say: this kid shouldn’t be suspended, he just needs a bit of extra support. His teachers needs that 360° view of the child for him to be a productive citizen.

By creating that 360° view, you help the helper. Cognitive government is the ability to better help the helper.

Thanks, Marquis. I’m rooting for Joey.

Me, too.