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Regional alliances boost Nordic AI industry

Universities and technology businesses in Nordic countries are working cross-border as part of two pan-Nordic organisations

The emergence of the Nordic Artificial Intelligence Network (NAIN) and the industry-backed Nordic AI Alliance (NAIA) in the second quarter of 2019 will consolidate the region’s growing reputation as a dynamic global hub for artificial intelligence (AI) research and innovation.

NAIN is steered and funded by the Nordic Five Tech Alliance (N5TA), a collaborative confederation of leading Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish universities. NAIN will function across the Nordics to drive innovation, technology information exchange and investments in high-end AI technology-focused enterprises and projects.

For the N5TA, the creation of NAIN achieves a number of key objectives amid heightened international interest in the commercial and societal opportunities presented by AI. NAIN will provide the N5TA with a research and development (R&D) vehicle that will use leading expertise in AI from across the Nordic region.

Ilkka Niemelä, president of Aalto University and a co-founder of the new organisation, said NAIN represents a “landmark step” to elevate the Nordic region as a global hub in AI research and innovation.

“AI is set to change the world, and the Nordics must be part of this tremendous shift,” said Niemelä. “The mobilising of expertise from across the region under a single umbrella via NAIN marks a crucial step in making the Nordics a global hub in AI.”

Aalto’s partners in the N5TA include the Gothenburg-based Chalmers University of Technology, the Technical University of Denmark, the Swedish KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, located in Trondheim.

The N5TA’s “building block” approach to developing NAIN’s AI innovation potential is expected to take several years to deliver full value in terms of output. The emphasis will be on producing an infrastructure that can support technically advanced AI offerings, such as information exchange, shared educational resources and best practice.

NAIN’s development roadmap will also focus on raising its capacity to stimulate research projects. Also, the N5TA wants NAIN to generate business models that can be  deployed effectively to form joint AI collaboration investment projects and ventures with industry.

Niemelä said NAIN’s ability and expertise to collaborate with industry and other professional actors in the AI field will become a crucial part of the organisation’s work to communicate Nordic excellence in AI, and to obtain competitive funding at national and European levels.

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“The N5TA comprises very strong AI research groups,” he said. “We are uniquely positioned to apply AI for the benefit of society. We can do this because it is both a part of our mission as technical universities and our shared culture of collaborating with the business  community and public institutions.”

In its research and development (R&D), NAIN will have access to the significant resources of on-campus research institutes and centres dedicated to AI. Aalto is already cooperating closely with the Helsinki-based Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence, one of the country’s top AI innovation centres.

Anders O Bjarklev, president of at the Technical University of Denmark, said: “A major rationale for NAIN is that it is backed by an alliance that is stronger than the individual universities. We are able to share our best practices in the areas of research and education to benefit the wider Nordic region.” 

NAIN’s parent organisation, the N5TA, was founded in November 2006 to strengthen Nordic cross-border technology cooperation and capabilities by bolstering information-sharing while creating synergies within education, research and innovation.

One of the N5TA’s drivers is its ambition to become the principal regional checkpoint for Nordic and international master of science in engineering students. The organisation has also reinforced collaboration at PhD level, covering supervision and assessment, specialised courses, infrastructure and quality assurance.

The N5TA offers a number of joint master’s courses, which are taught in English and are open to students with a relevant bachelor’s degree. The joint PhD course database enables PhD students at each N5TA affiliated university to access courses at other partner institutions.

With an eye on building capacity to engage in international AI-led collaboration, the N5TA has intensified the introduction of measures to increase the mobility of staff and students within its extended campus zone. One of the aims here is to provide the ideal conditions for cross-organisational learning.

New dynamic

The arrival of the NAIA will add a new dynamic to the AI R&D and innovation landscape across the region. The tech industry-backed NAIA was founded by 12 leading AI specialist enterprises and labs in Sweden, Finland and Norway.

The organisation’s co-founders include Sana Labs, Peltarion, Modulai, Mapillary, Annotell, Doberman and Avaus from Sweden; Silo.AI, Fourkind, Speechgrinder and Reaktor from Finland; and Iris.AI from Norway.

The NAIA’s core mission is to accelerate adoption of AI technology in businesses and organisations across the Nordics. The industry partnership was motivated largely by Nordic AI sector players eager to meet the competitive threat posed by the US and China in AI.

Ville Hulkko, chief commercial officer at Helsinki-based AI lab company Silo.Ai and co-founder of the NAIA, said that to remain competitive, the Nordic countries need to increase the pace at which they collaborate and adopt AI technology at the core of business and infrastructure.

“We need European unification of AI,” he said. “China is deploying AI across the industrial frontier, while the US possesses most of the consumer data in Western countries. By contrast, Europe remains fragmented. We are not working together well enough.”

The NAIA regards the diversity of languages in Europe, together with consumer privacy and General Data Protection Regulation rules as a major competitive asset, rather than an impediment because it can be leveraged to create unique AI-related opportunities in the global market.

“The level of strength through AI innovation that we are looking for can only be reached through collaboration,” said Hulkko. “This was the founding logic and basis for creating the Nordic AI Alliance.”

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