Finland globalises AI training programme


A Finnish consortium led by the University of Helsinki (UoH) is going global with an artificial intelligence (AI) initiative aimed at offering learning opportunities in AI to more people.

The UoH has joined forces with Helsinki-based technology consulting firm Reaktor to create a free online AI beginner’s course to educate an increasingly inquisitive native and international audience on AI and the technology’s potential impact on society, careers and their everyday lives.

Launched as a predominantly Finland-focused academic project in May 2018, the UoH-Reaktor’s The Elements of AI online offering continues to generate a lot of international interest. Students enrolling in the course come from all age groups, mirroring the results of extensive pilot trials conducted by UoH-Reaktor in advance of the online course’s roll-out.

So far, the course has attracted more than 140,000 students from 80 different countries. This number is expected to rise sharply after partner universities in Sweden and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands joined the project with plans to roll out similar online AI courses modelled on The Elements of AI.

Some 15 other countries have contacted the UoH-Reaktor team with plans to create and launch similar online AI training courses targeting citizens in their countries.

The course is structured to include up to 60 hours of online class sessions and training. An added attraction is that participating students can complete the course at their own pace, so they can study alongside their work. Also, students are not required to have AI coding skills.

The key elements of the course are self-study material, interactive content and assignments. The coursework, which is in English, provides students with the capacity to understand the concepts and core technologies of AI as well as its limitations.

The original plan for The Elements of AI was based on the modest ambition of reaching 1% of Finland’s population and training them in the basic philosophy and skills of AI. This target was reached within four months.

Emboldened by the initial results, the UoH-Reaktor team has revised and significantly scaled up its ambition. The new target is to reach and train 1% of the world’s population – about 80 million people – in AI knowledge and skills.

The project was rolled out in Finnish and English in 2018, and the level of international interest surprised its backers, said Jaakko Kurhila, the UoH’s chief digitisation officer.

“We wanted to deliver something new, innovative and usable in terms of AI training,” said Kurhila. “That was the original goal. We didn’t expect the level of interest we got, or how popular the free course might become internationally. We never envisaged that the course would reach more than 100,000 students.”

In developing the AI online training course, the UoH-Reaktor team opted for an approach where nobody is left behind, coupled with the objective of providing students with the essential tools to both understand, and have the means to control their engagements with, AI and closely linked technologies.

“There is a genuine fear among people of losing control if they fail to keep pace with AI and technological developments,” said Kurhila. “By knowing more about AI, people can embrace the future with more confidence and with less fear that AI will take over and destroy us all.”

International engagement with The Elements of AI was boosted by the course’s focus on AI fundamentals. The curriculum steers clear of deeper AI areas, such as coding. Instead, it is focused on six core segments – introducing AI, problem-solving using AI, real-world AI, machine learning, neural networks and the societal implications of AI moving forward.

Neural networks

The course covers a number of critical features of advanced AI technologies, such as neutral networks. These models of computation used in AI mimic the activity of the human brain and are increasingly used in language recognition applications.

“Giving people the knowledge they need to understand AI gives them the power to overcome their initial fears,” said Hanna Hagström, Reaktor’s director of AI. “The basic concepts of AI need to be understood so that they can be discussed more widely.”

In parallel with the AI course, the UoH-Reaktor team is bolstering efforts to get business and industry more engaged with AI training.

A higher level of engagement was achieved in 2018 by inviting companies to take part in the UoH-Reaktor AI Challenge. The immediate response was positive, especially from companies in Finland’s telecoms, banking, engineering and healthcare sectors.

To date, about 320 companies have signed up for the AI Challenge, including some of Finland’s global heavyweights – Stora Enso, Nokia and Elisa.

More than 1,000 of Stora Enso’s staff are taking part in the AI Challenge, while Nokia and telco Elisa have committed to train their entire workforces in fundamental AI skills.

Vibrancy of Finland’s tech industry

The UoH’s growing status in AI reflects the underlying vibrancy of Finland’s tech industry. In the field of AI, momentum is being maintained by research-led specialist organisations such as the Finnish Centre for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI), the country’s centre of excellence for AI and its societal impact.

The FCAI was co-founded by the UoH, Aalto University and the state-funded VTT Technical Research Centre in March 2018. It conducts primary research into AI technologies in partnership with public- and private-sector organisations. The main thrust of research activity is to develop practical AI applications.

“The FCAI functions as a competence cluster for AI,” said Petri Myllymäki, vice-director of FCAI and a professor of AI and machine learning at the UoH. “It helps to keep the best minds in the field in Finland, while attracting even more top experts and investment to the country.”

Myllymäki dismissed the suggestion that the US and China are widening the gap with Europe in AI-based technology, developments and expertise. The best prospects for Europe lie in the development of understandable and trustworthy AI that can utilise data effectively, he said.

“The game is only just beginning,” said Myllymäki. “The existing methods of AI work well in solving certain problems, but there are many more AI application opportunities that are still without functional solutions. Finland can lead the way, providing others in Europe with a model for how an increasingly well-functioning and successful society can be realised by utilising top-level expertise in AI.”

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