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Russia’s Sber launches international AI contest for children

Children from across the world invited to take part in artificial intelligence competition launched by Russian bank-turned-tech business

Russia’s Sber, formerly known as Sberbank, has launched an international contest for schoolchildren in collaboration with members of the Artificial Intelligence Alliance.

The contest, in which Sber expects 10,000 children to take part, aims to popularise artificial intelligence (AI) among children and young people, as well as engage and support outstanding talent worldwide.

Contenders will compete in one of 10 categories, including the analysis of earth sensing data, edtech, security, finance, robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles and medicine.

“These days, children are surrounded by new technology from a very early age, which enables them to master fields like artificial intelligence quickly,” said Herman Gref, CEO of Sber, in a statement. “In some countries, this training starts as early as in kindergarten and school, while in Russia this practice is rapidly gaining momentum.”

In November 2020, Sber hosted an international conference, AI Journey, where the decision was made to run an AI contest open to schoolchildren from any country.

“The contest comes as part of the continuation and stepping up of Sber’s activities aimed at developing AI tech in Russia,” Marina Rakova, director of digital educational platforms at Sber, told Computer Weekly. “In addition to actively supporting projects based on AI technologies within our ecosystem and investing in research, we are popularising the segment for a wider audience, including high school and university students.

“We are sure that the contest will allow us to create new opportunities for each child, support talented children all over the world and help them gather a team, in which they will execute their ideas, also forming a community of young professionals in the AI area.”

Sber started to invest in AI several years ago and it is now embedded in just about every process and product the bank offers to its customers.

Among the use cases, in addition to customer service, are anti-fraud and credit-checking. Sber is also offering K7M, a commercial financing product fully based on AI. K7M is a Russian abbreviation standing for “credit in seven minutes”, and Sber claims it takes just seven minutes between applying for a loan and collecting the cash.

AI is also heavily used in Sber’s recently launched family of virtual assistants, Salute, modelled on Apple’s Siri, Hey Google or Amazon’s Alexa.

As Sber sees a great future for AI-based technology, the company says it is important to introduce future customers and employees to AI at an early age.

“AI technologies are spreading more and more widely in our day-to-day life, and therefore, in the not-too-distant future, every person will benefit from basic understanding of AI, just like today people benefit from basic computer and finance skills,” said Rakova.

“If a child is introduced to AI while still at secondary school, they will feel much more confident in a world where this tech is used across the board, and they will realise earlier that in the near future, all professions will require basic skills in that field.”

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According to Rakova, many leading tech companies have realised that demand for AI professionals will only grow, which prompted them to run various programmes for children and young people, because at that age, the foundations of their future success can be built and their capabilities and interests revealed.

In 2019, the Russian government adopted a national strategy for the development of AI through to 2030. In 2020, the Artificial Intelligence Alliance was formed, with member companies including Sber, Mail.ru Group, Gazprom Neft, MTS, RDIF and Yandex. The aim is to collaborate on developing competencies and accelerating the adoption of AI in education, research and business operations.

“We are convinced that AI is the 21st century’s most important technology, which opens up enormous prospects for us,” said Rakova. “The most developed countries are actively developing AI, and major tech companies are driving that process globally.

“Businesses’ participation and expertise will help to simplify the process of AI adoption in the real world and work out a required legal basis. We hope that collaboration between the government, researchers, promising startups and corporations will already, in the short term, place Russia among the global leaders in the AI field.”

The AI contest for schoolchildren will have several stages. As of 15 February, individual contestants and teams will solve tasks on the platform aiijc.com, specifically built for the contest. In the next stage, which will run online from 15 April to 1 July, teams will choose one of 10 categories and solve a particular case.

In late 2021, 50 teams will travel to Moscow for the finals to compete for a RUB1m ($13,400) cash prize allocated to the winner of each of the 10 themes.

“We expect 10,000 children from all over the world to take part in the contest,” said Rakova. “We have strived to make the contest accessible for any school student who is interested in AI and wants to improve their skills. The first stage’s tasks do not require substantial previous knowledge, and, for the entire contest, our experts will guide the participants.”

The finals in Moscow will be organised in accordance with Covid-19 protocols that will be in place at the time.

The contest is part of Sber’s strategy to redefine itself as a tech company rather than just a major provider of banking and financial services, which it has been pursuing in recent years.

Last autumn, Sber, Russia’s oldest, 179-year-old lender, in which the country’s government owns a 50% plus one share, made a drastic move to officially rebrand itself as a tech company and dropping the word “bank” from its name and logo. Simultaneously, Sber unveiled a range of new devices and services that go beyond traditional banking products in a bid to cement its reputation in the tech sector.

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