Why Finland is Training its Entire Population in AI

By BrainStation February 12, 2019

It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie: A country training as many citizens as possible on the ins-and-outs of artificial intelligence (AI).

But in Finland, the future is already here.

The Nordic nation’s AI strategy focuses on helping citizens without a tech background become comfortable with machine-based learning and intelligence — and there’s increasing hope that training residents in AI will not only be beneficial to a variety of industries but to society as a whole.

Back in 2017, the country became Europe’s first to launch this kind of national AI strategy, PRI reports, and the final analysis of the strategy’s success will be released in April 2019. The goal? Getting one percent of Finland’s population — or more than 50,000 people — up to speed on AI, with bigger growth down the line.

“Originally started as a free-access university course, Finland’s ‘1 percent’ AI scheme is now being rolled out nationally with the support of private companies and the government,” Politico writes.

So why is Finland spending so much energy getting its population well-versed in AI? Well, there are a few key reasons — and other countries may want to take note.

Boosting Business

Enhancing Finland’s business competitiveness and making sure the country attracts top-level expertise are some of the key reasons behind the push, according to a 2017 report from a steering group led by Finland’s economic affairs minister.

And the goal isn’t about deeper education for the tech community — it’s a focus on the broader workforce, given expectations about AI’s widespread impact on various industries in the years ahead.

Consensus is that properly applying AI will drive significant economic benefit for companies and countries alike,” says Geoff MacGregor, who handles strategy and corporate development at Toronto-based AI company Element AI.

Fighting Fears

AI has been somewhat demonized through modern depictions, whether it’s robots who surpass the human race, or intelligent machines that take away the working class livelihood. Given these societal fears around machine-based intelligence, MacGregor says it’s helpful for people to better understand the reality of how it works.

“At its simplest, it’s a software tool to augment human work,” he explains. “The more people understand AI — what it is and what it isn’t — the more likely they are to apply it and capture its economic benefit.”

Supporting Aging Populations

One piece of Finland’s strategy includes beefing up knowledge among the country’s older generation.

Around 100 senior volunteers have been mentoring their peers on the basics of AI, like using Siri and Alexa, along with navigation and translation apps. This mentorship is taking place in community centers, libraries, and other spots frequented by the elderly, according to a report from PRI.

The older generation has a lot to gain from learning about AI; apps involving machine intelligence can help seniors mitigate the hurdles of hearing and vision loss and other potential ailments that accompany aging.

Benefiting Society

There’s growing hope that AI will be as beneficial as it is ubiquitous in the decades ahead, both in Finland and beyond.

“I hope we’ll look back on AI as having one of the greatest positive societal impacts ever,” says MacGregor. “We need to be cautious and diligent on how we adapt to this change but hopefully it allows us to focus on more human jobs.”

When workers are able to remove the monotonous tasks that negatively impact their happiness, and let AI do the work instead, he hopes that allows more people to embrace their creative and emotional sides.

“We’ll shift our economy towards jobs that require human interaction and emotion like child and elderly care,” MacGregor adds. “Ideally we’ll all accomplish more, work less, and have more time outside work to contribute to culture.”

Embracing the Inevitable

One thing is certain: AI isn’t going away and is poised to become an increasingly crucial part of the human experience — be it through home-based assistance apps or robots programmed to perform certain tasks in the workforce.

“Artificial intelligence is already part of our everyday life, and it is going to have an even bigger impact on every industry and individual in the future,” says Hanna Hagström, Director of AI Business at Finnish IT company Reaktor.

“This is why everyone should be given a chance to understand what AI really is and how we can use it. The democratization of information is important so that everyone has equal opportunity to shape the future.”