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Texas lawmakers and agency leaders experiment, ponder policies for an AI future

Rush hour traffic passes by on Interstate 35 through downtown Austin on the evening of Sept. 7, 2023.
Rush hour traffic passes by on Interstate 35 through downtown Austin on the evening of Sept. 7, 2023. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

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The next time the Texas Department of Transportation is on the scene of a crash before you even realize there’s a standstill ahead, or if you see that state agencies are sending their invoices a little sooner, you might thank a computer.

In the brave new world of artificial intelligence, the new Artificial Intelligence Advisory Council is already finding surprising ways Texas state agencies are already using advanced computing to increase efficiency. Created by the Legislature during last year’s session to explore the role of AI in government, the council has been meeting for less than a month, but their findings so far are already creating buzz.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan appointed members to the council, which has wasted no time getting the ball rolling on investigating potential places for legislation. On Thursday, the council co-chairs, state Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, sat on a panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Summit addressing the future of AI as it relates to state government mere hours after the advisory council held its first substantive meeting.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an highly influential conservative think tank based in Austin, recently announced AI as one of its top legislative priorities for 2025. However, at the time they announced the priority policy areas, they had few specifics. But panelists on Thursday indicated that a few ideas might be coming together.

“They’re probably no less than seven to eight, at least — maybe 10, or more — bill ideas that came out of the conversation this morning already,” Parker said.

Capriglione pushed that benchmark to 10 or a dozen bills.

“We heard from one agency who is already using it on their back end processing to do invoices,” he said. “They’ve gone from two to three weeks to do invoices to 13 seconds. It’s more accurate. It’s faster.”

Thursday morning’s advisory council meeting was a wide-ranging three-hour session in which members heard testimony from the Department of Information Resources, the Department of Transportation, the Workforce Commission and the Teacher Retirement System. Department of Information Resources privacy attorney Jennie Hoelscher told the council that there’s a broad mix of how state agencies are approaching AI, including “generative AI,” like ChatGPT or Microsoft Copilot.

“There are some agencies that have very restrictive rules about the use of AI within their agencies,” Hoelscher said. “There are other agencies that are very open to employees using generative AI in particular, so there is a broad spectrum.”

Agencies have mostly been using AI to increase efficiency and productivity, added John Hoffman, who doubles as the Department of Information Resources’s chief technology officer and the deputy chief information officer for Texas. Yes, agencies are using chatbots, he said, but it’s more than that.

“The resources are limited. The requirements are high. It’s ‘how are we using AI to best provide that,’” Hoffman told the council.

TxDOT said it is testing and using AI in incident detection to more quickly deploy crews, user access management, automated invoicing and machine learning for video analytics on traffic cameras. Those video analytics help identify traffic disruptions, from crashes and debris to pedestrians on highways, and measure things like vehicle counts and speeds. In the future, TxDOT is exploring using AI for chatbots, fleet assessment and running analyses are where crashes are likely to occur.

The council will publish its final report sometime in November or December. Policy proposals could include legislation designating a state agency to write state AI policy; potentially creating a separate AI policy-making office and measures related to data privacy and cybersecurity.

Disclosure: Microsoft and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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