Finland’s grand AI experiment

HELSINKI —  Jaana Partanen is not your typical AI programming geek.

Until a year ago, the 59-year-old dentist from the Finnish town of Mikkeli had no idea what to make of terms like “machine learning” or “neural networks.”

Now, Partanen spends her evenings learning the basics of coding and she is thinking about how to apply artificial intelligence to her job, either to help write up medical summaries or perform orthodontics.

“I can see it [artificial intelligence] is already here, and it serves us — very much actually,” she said, adding that following the latest developments in the field has become a hobby.

She’s one of tens of thousands of non-technology experts who are taking part in a grand experiment aimed at repurposing the country’s economy toward high-end applications of artificial intelligence. The idea has a simple, Nordic ring to it: Start by teaching 1 percent of the country’s population, or about 55,000 people, the basic concepts at the root of artificial technology, and gradually build on the number over the next few years.

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.

For Helsinki, there is also a clear economic incentive to training large numbers of Finns in the basics of AI: Doing so may allow Finland to stay competitive amid ever growing competition between China and the United States, and in the aftermath of the rapid decline of Nokia, the national mobile champion that has fallen on hard times.

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