Agent Kay: the official state of Kansas ‘chatbot’

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Screenshot of Agent Kay, the official state of Kansas "chatbot"

TOPEKA – The state of Kansas entered into a new technological phase recently when it launched an official state “chatbot” that can answer a variety of questions about state government almost instantly, online, using a databank that’s being built with artificial intelligence.

“Agent Kay” is the official name of the chatbot, and it can be accessed through the state’s official web portal,

“Chatbots are kind of an emerging technology that uses artificial intelligence to understand basically the way people talk,” said Nolan Jones, general manager of the Kansas Information Consortium, the private company that built the chatbot.

“And so when you ask a question you don’t have to format it exactly the same way,” he said. “You can just use natural language, and it will do its best to respond to you with relevant information.

Jones described artificial intelligence as a collection of different technologies that enable computers to generate and respond to ordinary, conversational language, and to build on its own knowledge base, essentially “learning” as it goes along.

To test out the system, the Journal-World asked Agent Kay about two terms that appeared in a news release Friday about drought conditions throughout the state.

“What is the difference between a drought emergency and a drought warning,” the Journal-World asked.

At first, the response was unimpressive. “Sorry, I do not understand,” the chatbot replied, then directed the user to phone numbers that are staffed by live individuals during business hours.

But within a few minutes, it sent another reply with a link to a Kansas Water Office document that provided the exact information requested.

“I know for sure what happened,” Jones said. “The automated system attempted, and when it didn’t it kicked it over to a real person that read your question, then responded back to it. We’re getting smarter every day, but on that stuff, it was definitely a human being that got you the information you needed.”

The Kansas Information Consortium is a subsidiary of Olathe-based NIC, a company that provides technical support for state and local governments around the country. The consortium operates a number of network-related services on behalf of the Information Network of Kansas, a state agency that, among other things, hosts the website.

Jones said Agent Kay was initially programmed with answers to the most commonly asked questions that INK receives, such as, “How do I renew my driver’s license?” and “Does Kansas have a motorcycle helmet law?” As of Friday, he said, the system is programmed for more than 200 answers including, now, where to find out about drought stages.

It will not, however, answer personal questions about individual tax returns or health records, but it will direct users to state agencies that do deal with such issues, Jones said.

Jones said the Agent Kay chatbot is being provided to the state at no charge to taxpayers. That’s because the Kansas Information Consortium operates a number of different systems that generate their own revenue, and INK then directs how those revenues are put to use.

“We’re always exploring new technologies and where we can improve citizens’ (and) businesses’ lives out there,” Jones said. “The powerful part for us is it allows us to extend our customer service to 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”


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