Although bots that automate processes are common in federal acquisition, pure AI is still in beta mode, said experts.
Federal agencies are evolving from leveraging rote robotic processing bots in their acquisition operations toward more complex artificial intelligence processes to inject even more efficiencies into contracting.
"We do have seeds of true AI sprouting" for federal acquisition applications, Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi, director of the Acquisitions Centers of Excellence in the General Services Administration said during a Defense One June 3 virtual event on automation in acquisition.
While robotic process automation (RPA) bots that handle rote, repetitive chores and free up humans for other work are increasingly common, AI is more complicated, according to Ghaffari-Tabrizi.
GSA uses a bot to track, find and change Section 508 disability clauses in contracts to ensure compliance, and that work is more advanced than just rote processing he said. That review, he said, takes "some degree of intelligence," but the output is always reviewed by humans to ensure accuracy.
While RPA bots can be implemented relatively quickly based on automating established processes, AI takes more time and expertise because it forges new paths in processes and data, by finding new ways to traverse both, said Michelle McNellis, who is also a director of acquisitions at GSA.
GSA has been at the forefront of implanting bots, with dozens automatically performing repetitive electronic processes, such as automating the work associated with processing offers under the Federal Acquisition Service's Multiple Award Schedules as well as an invoice notification bot.
It's also using bots for its FASt Lane, eOffer and eMod processes, said Ghaffari-Tabrizi. FASt Lane is the agency's program to accelerate how IT contractors get new products onto its buying schedules, while eOffer/eMod allow vendors to submit modifications to their contracts.
Other federal agencies looking to harness similar RPA capabilities, said McNellis, should move deliberately, getting input from all agency operations, including finance, IT, acquisition and management. Legal issues and IT capabilities need to be addressed before moving ahead with either AI or RPA efforts, she said.