News & Politics

5 Ways Federal Agencies Are Already Using AI

Birdwatching, prescription monitoring, and more.

Photograph by Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images.

With the explosion of the artificial-intelligence tool ChatGPT, workplaces everywhere are looking at how to harness AI—and the federal government is no different. Last year, the Government Accountability Office released a report on how agencies are employing AI, or could soon be using it. For some more insight, we called up the report’s author, Kevin Walsh, a director on the GAO’s IT-and-­cybersecurity team.


Filing Taxes

Though e-filing is now extremely common, plenty of taxpayers still fill out their forms by hand—which can be hard for workers to decipher at the chronically understaffed IRS. Recently, the agency began using AI to read that text, saving time and effort. Walsh points out that AI isn’t replacing any workers, because a human backstop is still necessary to catch potential errors.


Counting Creatures

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—which is part of the Department of Commerce—uses AI to count the number of seabirds and seals in drone photography, according to Walsh’s report. Those animals are used by the agency as indicators of overall environmental health, but it can be challenging for humans to accurately count groups of creatures that overlap and move around.


Protecting Cybersecurity

As a cybersecurity specialist, Walsh is particularly interested in AI’s potential in protecting the government’s computer infrastructure. Systems are built on layers of old code, and “a lot of people who could program in those languages are retired or dead,” Walsh says. AI should soon help identify gaps in security and then be able to translate those arcane programming languages into something usable by modern coders.


Patrolling the Border

The Department of Homeland Security is experimenting with a range of AI tools, including object recognition to find guns, drugs, or other contraband in photo data from phones seized at the border. According to one DHS report, the department is also working on something referred to, rather ominously, as autonomous surveillance towers, which can take pictures from up to a mile and a half away.


Tracking Prescriptions

The FDA is currently testing a program that uses AI to filter through existing data in the nation’s prescription medications, looking for patterns that could indicate fraud or misuse. “How many millions of prescriptions do we deal with on a daily basis in the United States? And can one analyst go through those data and find large overarching trends? You’d need teams of analysts to do that,” says Walsh. “AI holds the potential to do some of those things that previously were out of reach.”

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Arya Hodjat
Editorial Fellow