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18/02/2019

Inside Finland’s plan to become an artificial intelligence powerhouse

Wired says Finland knows it doesn’t have the resources to compete with China or the United States for artificial intelligence supremacy, so it’s trying to outsmart them. “People are comparing this to electricity – it touches every single sector of human life,” says Nokia chairman Risto Siilasmaa. From its foundations as a pulp mill 153 years ago, Nokia is now one of the companies helping to drive a very quiet, very Finnish AI revolution.

Last May, the small Nordic country announced the launch of Elements of AI, a first-of-its-kind online course that forms part of an ambitious plan to turn Finland into an AI powerhouse. To date, more than 130,000 people have signed up for the course. “It’s a pretty unique thing in Finland,” says Siilasmaa, who had an advisory role in the development of the online course. But it isn’t just Finns who are benefitting from the grand AI plan.

A few months after the course launched, developer Teemu Roos found himself chatting online to a Nigerian plumber who wanted to learn more about artificial intelligence. It was then that Roos, and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki who helped develop Elements of AI, knew their work could have a massive impact – not just in Finland, but across the world.

For such an ambitious plan, it has humble beginnings. The aim of the online course is to ensure that as many Finns as possible understand the basics of AI. According to Roos and Siilasmaa, practically anyone could benefit from knowing more about AI right now. And from that huge pool of knowledge, the hope is that a few bright sparks can give Finland a competitive edge.

An online course could quickly and easily ensure that people are well-equipped to respond to the arrival of this technology. There is, after all, a substantial AI skills gap – with millions of engineering jobs available but only a few hundred thousand people currently qualified to fill them. Rather than waiting to be disrupted by AI, the hope is that Finns could learn to bend it to their will.

With the help of design consultancy Reaktor, the Elements of AI team came up with the full six-week programme in just a few months.

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