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Industry backs Norway’s AI powerhouse project

Industry and academia in Norway are working together to boost the country’s artificial intelligence capabilities

Norway is stepping up its efforts in the rapidly evolving and increasingly commercial artificial intelligence (AI) sector.

Participants in the latest programme want to reduce the country’s reliance on oil revenues by tapping into AI opportunities in its growing technology sector.

Norway has traditionally played a junior role in the context of Nordic technology development, investment and global presence, but its second-tier status to neighbours Sweden, Denmark and Finland – which is partly explained by the country’s offshore oil and gas economy focus – could be set to change.

The first phase in an AI-centred push is led by a collaborative group comprising some of Norway’s leading “smart” industry companies. They established the joint venture enterprise Norwegian Open AI Lab (NOAIL), a platform that will set about developing indigenous AI expertise and technologies for the home and export markets.

Initial investing partners include large corporations like telecom operator Telenor, state tech-innovation organisations Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and research organisation Stiftelsen for industriell og teknisk forskning (SINTEF) as well as niche partners such as finance and marine/defence groups DNB and Kongsberg.

Norway’s largest bank, DNB, is the banking sector’s biggest investor in AI and digital services. The group also includes Equinor (formerly Statoil) and DNV GL, the Oslo-based marine industry global classification agency

The principal focus on the development side will be to deliver AI-solutions that can be monetised through international sales. As a result, NOAIL will operate as a powerhouse for Norwegian AI-innovations and solutions that can be scaled for use by small, medium and large-sized organisations in Norway and globally.

Centre of excellence

Moreover, NOAIL will serve as a centre of excellence to strengthen the quality and capacity for research, education and innovation in the AI-domain.

“What we are doing, and what this collaboration is essentially all about, is responding to a need, as Norway needs a national strategy for AI,” said Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor. “The Norwegian Open AI Lab’s expansion will enable more actors to benefit from the advantages and opportunities of AI.

“It means Norwegian industries can strengthen collaboration, and this will ultimately contribute to a forceful national AI strategy.”

Read more about AI in the Nordic region

The degree of industry-led support for NOAIL aims to ensure that the joint venture organisation has access to the capital’s resources and professional expertise. To meet its mission targets, the NOAIL will also need to exploit competitive advantage by tapping in to Norway’s advanced ICT infrastructure, technical competence and a population with above-average technological literacy.

“We are living in a highly competitive world that is fast-moving and increasingly challenging. It’s critical that we start to build Norway's competence within the AI domain now. Industry in Norway faces challenges and requirements that can't be solved by using off-the-shelf solutions. We must work to develop technology that can strengthen Norwegian industry’s competitive advantage,” said Alexandra Bech Gjørv, CEO of SINTEF.

Significantly, the NOAIL platform will help construct a more collaborative bridge between industry and universities in Norway. This is certainly the case within the specialised areas of AI research projects and new advanced technology pilot programmes.

The basis for this cooperation is the shared understanding that industry and academia will need to form a deeper bond in the AI-area for Norway to gain its much sought-after strong and sustainable international position in the global marketplace.

NOAIL will benefit from AI project investments run by a number of leading partner corporations, but particularly Equinor, Kongsberg and Telenor. For example, the technology transfer between Telenor’s Troundheim-headquartered Telenor-NTNU AI-Lab and NOAIL has already begun. This will include the innovation-linked advances within AI, machine learning and big data areas that have already been made by Telenor-NTNU AI-Lab.

Driving entrepreneurship

The Telenor-NTNU AI-Lab became a high-profile AI venture when it was launched in collaboration with SINTEF in 2016. The specific aim of the Telenor-NTNU AI-Lab at that time was to drive entrepreneurship and the development of Norwegian competence within AI.

The ambitious growth path set by NOAIL’s partners will transform the organisation into a more ambitious next-generation version of the Telenor-NTNU AI-Lab. Utilising the AI-resources of central academic institutions nationally and internationally, NOAIL aims to become Norway’s leading recognised laboratory for AI research and development.

State funding to NOAIL will be made through founding partners like the NTNU. Businesses such as Equinor, Kongsberg and Telenor will provide most of NOAIL’s day-to-day operating costs, and contribute funding where needed to support its flagship AI-development programmes.

The emergence of NOAIL as an important AI-development force follows a number of lesser-profiled, smaller-scale AI ventures in Norway. One of these projects, Norwegian AI, was launched in the form of a €100m investment fund in May 2017. 

“Norway can either make an impression now or be left behind in the AI space,” said Alexander Hagerup, a co-founder of Vic.ai, a company that automates accounting services and provides financial advice and support using artificial intelligence solutions. “We must seize opportunities to transition from a great but slumbering oil nation to an exponential technology nation.”

Björn Ivroth, CEO of technology services group Evry, said Norway must step up and raise its profile as a leading global AI-solutions developer. “The smart leaders in companies are already thinking in terms of how AI can benefit them,” he said.

The need for urgent action on AI in Norway, according to the Evry chief, is based on the estimate that just one in five Norwegian business leaders think their business will have introduced systems based on AI by 2020.

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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