Finnish government backs national AI development strategy

Government is harnessing Finland’s tech base to help make the country a leading location for the artificial intelligence industry

Finland is mobilising its technology base in a bid to become a leading global player in artificial intelligence (AI).

The centre-right government has, amid record investment activity in the sector, set in motion a plan to develop a far-reaching national AI development strategy.

For Finland’s economic planners and industrialists, AI has become the new internal combustion engine, or electric light, with infinite unexplored uses and commercial frontiers. At a more fundamental level, Finland is looking to unearth the next-generation tech star – an innovator that will put the country firmly on the world AI map, just as Nokia did when it emerged from virtual obscurity in the 1980s to become a global powerhouse in mobile communications.

New stars are rising within the AI domain internationally. For example, in August 2017, Intel paid $15bn for Mobileye, the Israel-based company developing smart vision for self-driving cars.

“We are not hiding our ambition here,” said Mika Lintilä, Finland’s economic affairs minister. “We want Finland to become a leader in applying artificial intelligence and robotics to the benefit of societies and enterprises.”

The economic affairs ministry has set up a national steering group (NSG) to develop an AI development strategy and advise the government on relevant AI-connected policy during the current administration’s term in office and beyond. The NSG is headed by former Nokia president and CEO Pekka Ala-Pietilä, currently chairman of Finnish food packaging giant Huhtamäki Oy.

The choice of Ala-Pietilä to lead the NSG is significant. Apart from his technology background, he has high status in Finland, partly because of his deep-rooted connection to Nokia. He has also taken part in private and state-run expert groups that actively support and advise Finnish tech startups on product development, enterprise funding and value creation.    

The NSG has been given a wide-ranging mission. The Finnish government wants it to examine AI’s potential within a broad spectrum of applications.

“The goal is to get the business end of the steering group’s work functioning well,” said Kalle Kantola, vice-president of research at VTT (Valtion Teknillinen Tutkimuskeskus), Finland’s state-funded technical innovation agency. “The aim is to move things along rather than draft some long, boring report.” Kantola is a member of the NSG’s administrative support group.

The creation of the NSG, and the role it will play in drafting and shaping a national AI development strategy and legislation, is happening amid unprecedented activity in AI-related research and development (R&D) in Finland. The national strategy is expected to add energy and innovation to projects both planned and already under way. It will also make it easier for AI-connected firms to attract expertise and investment.      

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Finland already has a lot of expertise in structured digital data. To remain competitive, the economy’s export-dependent industrial base has, historically, concentrated on products for which performance requirements are a key component.

Advanced research based on the use of AI sensors, algorithms and telecommunications in niche areas of healthcare, such as pregnancy, births and infant intensive care, has been identified as an area with significant growth potential.

Med-tech firms in this area are being backed by VTT, and this same area of research is creating a larger pool of industry expertise that could, if well managed, position Finland as a world leader in this specialised healthcare segment.  

In Finland, AI represents the next phase in digitisation. The AI domain is populated both by companies applying AI technologies in their operations, and innovative enterprises producing AI-based technology, such as image or speech recognition. Those companies applying AI technologies are being served by a growing community of often micro-sized AI firms.

In Finland, the appliers of AI tend to be leading indigenous corporations, such as Kone and Cargotec. One of the aims of the national development strategy will be to expand and monetise the use of AI and robotics by bringing more small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) into the ranks of those applying AI.

Based on AI patents filed in the US and China in 2017, Finland, as well as other Nordic nations, faces an uphill battle to carve out a leading position in niche AI fields. In terms of AI patents filed, Europe lags well behind the US, while China’s AI state initiative, launched in July 2017, aims to position the country as the world’s leading AI innovation centre by 2030.

Even tech-savvy countries such as Japan, Germany and South Korea may find themselves playing catch-up in the AI domain as China surges on.

Clear objectives

“We must have clear objectives,” said Lintilä. “The sooner we get started, the more we can use AI to improve our performance. The most successful nation states and municipalities of the future will be societies and places best able to apply AI. Even inside the next five years, AI has the capacity to change our lives more than any other invention.”

A plan to develop a comprehensive funding infrastructure for AI research and commercial-scale projects will be embedded in to the national development strategy. At a government level, VTT will continue to deliver technical support and expertise, while TEKES, Finland’s main funding agency for innovation, will play an expanded role in providing finance to AI ventures from a larger budget.

The government-backed AI Business Programme, launched in February and managed by state industry development agency Business Finland, provides another layer to the funding structure. About €200m is available in grants and financial incentives to SMEs and larger companies to develop and use AI.

The four-year programme will run until 2022, and funding is largely geared to research companies engaged in projects ranging from the building of global ecosystems to digital and other test platforms.

“Finland has decades of experience in neural network and artificial intelligence research,” said Pekka Soini, Business Finland’s director general. “It is estimated that AI and the platform economy will contribute 30% to Finland’s GDP in 2030.”

Finland’s principal goals in a future national strategy will include the enhancement of business competitiveness through the use of AI, the effective utilisation of data in all sectors, and the adoption of time- and cost-efficient AI systems by companies and society. The strategy will also aim to develop AI expertise and attract top experts to Finland by creating new models to drive capital investment activity and innovation-led partnerships.

Connecting AI projects and investment to Finland’s leading tech universities will also feature prominently in the national strategy. ........................................................................................ ......................................................................................................

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