Lessons in Artificial Intelligence – Finland is doing it right . . . again.

TO BE PREPARED IS HALF THE VICTORY – MIGUEL DE CERVANTES: What did Google think was so important for it to be provided for free to the general public and citing its potential as “so great that every person should learn its basics”? The answer is, of course, Artificial Intelligence (AI) which has not only grown in its applications in wider society, but has now seen a sharp increase as a field of study. North America has seen a number of such courses appearing in recent years but there’s a region that has been making big but silent leaps forward. Taking a step out of Mountain View, California, where would you expect a similar degree of forward-thinking? The North. . . and we are not talking about Game of Thrones. The country in focus is Finland, and while it lost the battle against South Korea in the fight for top place in the world’s best education systems in 2018 – now Finland is looking for redemption. . .
Geographically speaking, and a common misconception is that Finland is part of Scandinavia. Finland is part of the Nordic countries, however, and has been ranking highly in a number of indicators of success; it has consistently ranked as one of the countries with the top education systems in the world and now they are challenging the status quo in yet another area. In 2017, the Nordic and Baltic countries set a number of benchmarks regarding uses of AI in wider society, in the private and public sectors. Sometimes there are people, or countries in this case, that walk the extra mile and strive beyond what is expected of them. In this case, Finland was the country that wanted to take it to another level. This was not the act of a single individual but trickled down from government initiatives into the sphere of education and then into wider society; Last year, the University of Helsinki finally launched a course in the field of AI together with the technology company Reaktor. As of May, more than 150,000 people have already registered for the course in Finland and now the Finnish Minister of Business Affairs Mika Lintilä is challenging the neighbouring Swedish population to attend the course. As we know, Finland and Sweden have shown the world the example of healthy competition (although the level of “healthy” changes when it comes to Ice Hockey), so the question to Sweden is: will it accept this challenge and how will it keep up?
Before we get to Sweden, it’s important to understand why this course exists in the first place. The AI course Elements of AI at the University of Helsinki received the assignment to develop a web course to raise awareness of what artificial intelligence actually means, free from preconceptions. The hope was also to reduce the fear that the technology may be used against people (our article from last year speaks about psychological aspect in more detail). They initially discovered that the media image of AI was far from fact-based and often negative. This, undoubtedly, frightens people who receive a science fiction image of it. This is where reactionary measures needed to be implemented. “We wanted to do something about this” – Teemu Roos, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Helsinki, who developed the course together with the IT company Reaktor. The Elements of AI web course, which started in 2018, also wants to increase the understanding that the technology already exists in people’s everyday lives, for example through personalized content on social media. [Source: NyTeknik] So far, over 200 companies and public enterprises have supported the initiative by letting employees study the course during working hours. “This is an important step in being able to see opportunities with AI in a changing working life”, says Teemu Roos.
But did you think it was only available to citizens of Finland? Think again. This course is going global and since it’s a web course almost anyone can access it – “The goal is that one percent of the world’s population should attend the course” according to Roos. It seems far-fetched but aiming high and achieving it has placed Finland as a force in innovation and various international standards. With 150,000 registrations for the course, one goal of reaching one percent of the Finnish population has already been reached. The world is next. . .? However, this is where Sweden comes back in the picture. To have individuals take a course is one thing but for a country to adopt similar forward-thinking AI adoption principles, a necessary challenge is needed. . .
First, to adopt Finland’s challenge is Sweden, where a similar AI education program starts in May. “And the course is needed”, says Martin Svensson from newly started AI Innovation of Sweden who is responsible for the course in collaboration with Linköping University. Linköping University is responsible for translation and quality assurance of the course, which will give higher education credits. The education goes through basic principles for AI, but also looks at applications, different possibilities but also restrictions. No prior knowledge or advanced mathematical skills are required. Some 30 Swedish organizations, including Sweden’s municipalities and county councils, and various companies have so far reported interest in letting employees take part of the course. 
“We are facing a potentially big paradigm shift, but the awareness of AI and how the technology will affect is low,” he says. Martin Svensson is correct in this statement. Miguel de Cervantes’ statement about preparation being half the victory has become relevant here, but have these reactionary measures come in time? We all know that AI is already here and the field is dynamic with major new developments being introduced annually – will a course that focuses even on just the basics of AI consider the fluidity of these new developments? Will the content lag behind progress? In any case, it is a positive step that undoubtedly makes the wider public aware of what it entails and in which directions these changes can come from. If a creative person identifies and receives the relevant tools, that person can achieve ground-breaking results from their ideas. A healthy rivalry between Finland and Sweden will do the world good … especially when its off the ice hockey rink.


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