Issues & Insights
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Mann

With The Right Reforms, Artificial Intelligence Can Transform The Postal Service

Even in its infancy, artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the world and captivating tech experts and laypeople alike. Chatbots can spit out quantum theory in Shakespearean prose, while robotic kitchen assistants can brew a mean coffee and fry a delicious burger. AI is even working wonders at the United States Postal Service (USPS), an institution hardly known for its technological prowess. America’s mail carrier has started using robots to talk with consumers and find lost packages, and applications are bound to proliferate. But the USPS has a troubling track record in responsibly using digital applications and AI will be no different absent careful oversight. The agency must strike the right balance in embracing new technologies and safeguarding consumer privacy.

Over the past few years, the USPS has been busily building AI-powered solutions to keep the consumer experience as smooth and efficient as possible. In 2021, ZDNet senior writer Stephanie Condon reported, “[w]ith a new, Nvidia-powered AI program, the USPS has built a way to dramatically reduce the time it takes to find lost packages, down from several days to just two hours.”

Additionally, the USPS has experimented with using AI to help consumers troubleshoot through their many issues with the agency. A website chatbot launched in 2017 gave consumers a status update on their packages along with a customized greeting.

There was plenty of trial and error, though, involved in this initial deployment. The Postal Regulatory Commission notes that, “the pilot unexpectedly impacted the Postal Service’s network traffic … as well as other mission-critical functionalities of the Postal Service’s website.” This hiccup forced the agency to press pause on this early AI application, but the USPS found greater success with other consumer chat features. For example, the USPS’ “Virtual Agent” has been successfully deflecting consumer calls from the agency helpline and managing passport requests/appointments. The agency is also “evaluating the ability to improve the customer experience through a natural language customer interaction,” and a breakthrough seems likely with the rise of bots such as ChatGPT.

These programs can save taxpayers significant sums of money by allowing the USPS to hire fewer employees and increasing agency efficiency. However, there are legitimate concerns that AI can be abused by an agency that has a history of spying on Americans. In April 2021, Yahoo News reported that the agency runs an investigation unit known as the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) which sounds more like a CIA op than a postal division. According to the news outlet, “[t]he work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as ‘inflammatory’ postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.”

As if that isn’t creepy enough, the agency uses facial recognition software during internet searches “to help identify unknown targets in an investigation or locate additional social media accounts for known individuals.” Any new AI application could similarly be weaponized by the agency to keep tabs on Americans. Unfortunately, these rights violations are unlikely to come to the surface. The USPS routinely ignores Freedom of Information Act requests and lawmakers have proven reluctant to hold the agency responsible for its snooping.

It’s up to the new Congress to insist that any new AI technologies advance the USPS’ mission and aren’t redirected toward nefarious purposes. As a helpful first step, lawmakers can ensure that the inspector general’s office is adequately funded and equipped to investigate any agency abuses. Postal leadership and Congress must also work together to overhaul the USPS’ parcel pricing system and include AI-related costs in any pricing methodology. AI applications appear to overwhelmingly focus on package deliveries, and development and cybersecurity costs must be factored into parcel prices.

AI has the potential to transform America’s mail carrier. It’ll take a concerted effort to keep emerging postal technologies on the right track.

Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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