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A.I.: Confused? Worried? Try Finland!

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) – They say it’s inevitable. Are you worried it will take your job? Do you even understand what it is? The Finns are taking the bull by the horns. Their first goal is that 1% of the entire population will become familiar with A.I. Imagine what would happen if it was 1% of we Americans.

In the book  – “AI Superpowers” – Kai-Fu Lee, a well-known artificial-intelligence expert, venture capitalist and former president of Google China, argues that China has rapidly caught up with the U.S. in Artificial Intelligence and it will be they and Silicon Valley who will lead the world in AI. So, it looks like whether you understand it or want it – A.I. is truly coming. What’s an ordinary person to do? Let’s look at what Finland decided to do.

Finland, a lovely Nordic country of 5.5 million people, enjoys an advanced western standard of living, a parliamentary democracy and one of the best education systems in the world. As the two superpowers vie for technological supremacy in A.I., Finland knows it’s outclassed on raw resources. There is no point trying to compete with Beijing or Washington in terms of developing the basic technology of AI.

So Finland aspires to occupy a niche, as world leader in practical applications of AI, according to Economy Minister Mika Lintilä. “We’ll never have so much money that we will be the leader of artificial intelligence,” Lintilä said. “But how we use it — that’s something different.”

Not a bad idea, few of us aspire to code artificial intelligence programs but learning how to use it, as a tool, seems pretty sensible. After all we have learned to utilize all sorts of technological tools that we don’t really understand. How do we go about it? Let’s see what the Finns are doing.

Back in 2017, the Computer Science Department of the University of Helsinki and a consulting firm named Reaktor came up with an online course: “Elements of AI”. Basically, they took the computer science department’s introduction to AI and stripped out anything that required programming plus they built an attractive, user-friendly website. All well and good but how do you get traction? How do you get the word out? How do you motivate people to engage?

The marketing consultants of Reaktor struck upon the idea of promoting the course to the nation’s largest employers and tied it to a national goal of getting 1% of Finland’s population or 55,000 people to take the course and attain some facility with AI. By December, 10,500 people had taken the course and unlike the stereotype we in America often have of the Nordic system, none of this was government sponsored. It was all a grass roots campaign.

As the initiative began to flourish, government officials took notice, and publicly embraced it. Finland’s ministry of foreign affairs and the country’s tax authority both announced they would also train their staff — and when the first batches of their students graduated from “Elements of AI” in September 2018, Finland’s President showed up at the ceremony.

Finland has big plans based upon this success. It has launched a national strategy for AI. It intends to partner with Sweden and Estonia to create Europe’s number one laboratory for AI. Overall, the Finns believe that eventually 1 million of their population will need to update their AI skills.

Something even bigger is at work here. We often talk about Digital Transformation but it often seems like an amorphous concept. Practical understanding of the impact and use of AI is a doorway to being able to understand a key part of digital transformation.

Finland is a homogeneous and relatively well-educated population but it provides insights and lessons that we can leverage here in the U.S. Imagine if we could get 1% of our population to be facile with AI. Imagine 33 million people comfortable with using AI as a tool. Think that’s a stretch? Maybe not – in 2017, America has almost 225 million smartphones; in fact in 2010 we already had 60 million and the smartphone was only introduced in 2007.

Go ahead, try the out the course “Elements of AI”. You might as well; it won’t be long before they are as ubiquitous as smartphones.

By John Pientka

John Pientka

John is currently the principal of Pientka and Associates which specializes in IT and Cloud Computing.

Over the years John has been vice president at CGI Federal, where he lead their cloud computing division. He founded and served as CEO of GigEpath, which provided communication solutions to major corporations. He has also served as president of British Telecom’s outsourcing arm Syncordia, vice president and general manager of a division at Motorola.

John has earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University as well as a bachelor’s degree from the State University in Buffalo, New York.

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