Hedgehog, please renew my passport

Estonian AI chatbot in development to give citizens faster, simpler access to government services.

For years, Estonia has been busy carving out an online niche, differentiating itself from most other European countries by digitising as much of the country's government services as possible. It made headlines in 2014 when it allowed non-Estonians to obtain a form of digital citizenship and has continued along those lines ever since.

The latest planned development is an AI-based chatbot for interacting with citizens, one that will allow simpler, more convenient and hopefully more efficient access to government services. Called #KrattAI and with an Estonian working project name that roughly translates as "Hedgehog" in English, the chatbot would be accessed via existing third-party virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa. This decision removes any need for customers to download a new app, as well as the need for the government to create and regularly update one.

An example use case given by the Government Chief Information Office is of #KrattAI informing a citizen that her passport will expire in six months' time, then talking her through the renewal process, including taking a new photograph and authenticating herself via fingerprint and secure personal code. The interaction is mostly verbal, with #KrattAI liaising with the various government departments' service interfaces as required, behind the scenes.

Although still in the planning stages, feedback from the public for the Hedgehog has apparently been favourable so far. According to Ott Velsberg, Government Chief Data Officer at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications in the Republic of Estonia, "The initial response has been warm and positive. The discussions have been more around the technical aspects, but we haven't thus far identified anything critical."

Estonia's government services and IT systems are small-scale and modular, because this reduces the chances of an outage in one system causing government-wide problems. It's a deliberate design feature to increase development flexibility and resilience. As a result, the Estonian government sees #KrattAI not as a single entity but as an ecosystem of interoperable AI applications to provide or access digital public services.

Usage of the system will be voluntary, with citizens choosing to opt-in if they want to use the chatbot to manage some or all of their interactions with the government. That's important for both data privacy and security, and is likely to increase user trust in the system compared with a mandatory sign-up. The Estonian government foresees the creation of a 'digital twin' holding this data on behalf of each individual, the twin forming the basis for all interactions and queries.

Initially the majority of interactions would begin with push-driven notifications from the government, such as for passport renewals, but citizens would also be able to initiate interactions themselves as required.

To continue reading this article register now