Since the launch of Finland’s Artificial Intelligence Programme, the scope of its ambition has widened considerably.

Finland was among the first countries in the world to establish a national AI strategy when, in May 2017, the Finnish Minister for Economic Affairs, Mika Lintilä, appointed a steering group to prepare a proposal for how the country could position AI and robotics as cornerstones of its economy. Out of this, other bodies have emerged, including the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence (FCAI), an institute that aims to cover fundamental AI research and reach across a wide set of other scientific disciplines and application fields.

“There needs to be a sufficient base of AI expertise available,” Petri Myllymäki, vice-director of FCAI, says of the optimal conditions for creating such an ecosystem. “In Finland, bodies such as FCAI provide a constant stream of highly trained experts, and work as an efficient recruitment channel for bringing talent from abroad.”

As well as an “innovation-positive atmosphere” and political support, Myllymäki cites the importance of there being a wider digital ecosystem for such AI efforts to plug into. Access to modern computing platforms and networking technologies, such as 5G or 6G, is also important. All this can only be accomplished through ongoing collaboration between scientific centres of excellence, industry, public organisations, citizens and decision makers.

Collaborative innovation

FCAI plays a crucial role in underpinning this vision through the facilitation of relationships with various enterprises, public bodies and individuals engaged in AI RD&I.

“FCAI’s success is down to this idea of collaborative innovation,” Myllymäki explains. “It is a ‘lighthouse’ serving as a centre of excellence in fundamental AI research, where different parties provide feedback loops and are in constant interaction with one another, sharing ideas, people, data and other resources.”

Finland is not alone in establishing a national AI strategy, and, as a small country, has to be clever and agile in how it differentiates itself from others; focusing strategically on areas where impact can be substantial. In this, Outi Keski-Äijö sees Finland’s size, and the closeness of various players, as an asset.

“The Finnish AI ecosystem is compact and access to top-level expertise is easily provided,” explains Business Finland’s head of AI business. “The country’s well-functioning, well-educated, innovation-positive and highly-digitised society provides a kind of living lab, where new ideas and future technologies can be piloted and then scaled up if successful.”

International collaboration lies at the heart of FCAI’s ethos. The most important partner in this regard is the ELLIS network, which hosts 34 carefully evaluated Ellis Units, bringing together the most high-impact machine learning centres in Europe, including the UK, Switzerland and Israel. This network contains many of the leading AI groups in the world, enabling a sharing of ideas and talent, and presenting opportunities for collaboration.

In addition to a thriving AI industry, Finland is blessed with areas of outstanding natural beauty, including Saimaa lake (pictured). (Photo by Visit Finland/Mikko Nikkinen)

Multinational involvement

However, it is not only through academic collaboration that Finland derives international support. The success of its AI ecosystem has attracted significant foreign investment from global players such as Amazon, which chose Finland as its base for developing state-of-the-art delivery robot tech – under the name Scout – as well as 3D software that “simulates the complexity of real life”.

The NVIDIA AI Technology Center is another example of international investment, encompassing the US multinational technology company, FCAI and CSC – IT Centre for Science. Its work focuses on accelerating research, higher education and adoption of AI in Finland.

“In the collaboration model, FCAI brings the world-class research, NVIDIA helps the researchers to harness the computing capabilities of modern GPU architectures, and CSC provides state-of-the-art facilities and expertise in supercomputing,” explains Mikael Honkavaara, managing director of Nvidia Helsinki. “We are delighted to be part of the collaboration as we can participate in interesting research projects and learn from them, such as new algorithms and trends in supercomputer workloads. Furthermore, we are always excited to see our software and hardware technologies used in world-class research.”

The medical sector has also been particularly involved in Finland’s AI ecosystem. This is partly because of FCAI’s expertise in privacy-preserving machine learning and working with sensitive data, as well as the possibilities that AI offers in terms of diagnostics, nanotechnology and AI-assisted surgery.

Educate and engage

In terms of recent success stories, Myllymäki cites Twinify – a software package designed to generate privacy-preserving synthetic duplicates of sensitive data sets – as a good example of the country’s pioneering work within this space.

He also points to the MOOC Elements of AI –part of a series of free online courses aimed at increasing public education in AI, created as a collaboration between Finnish technology company Reaktor and the University of Helsinki. The platform now has close to one million users worldwide, available in 27 languages.

“Politically important issues like healthcare are crucial for educating and enthusing the wider Finnish public about the advantages of AI,” says Keski-Äijö. “People can better assess the risk levels associated with the negative image attributed to AI in popular media if they can balance it against the opportunities inherent within it.”

Myllymäki agrees: “Increasing the general knowledge of AI will not only affect the general atmosphere and make the society more innovation-and technology-positive but can also generate new ideas about impactful AI-based tools and services, as well as providing an exhaustless source of new talent to be further trained in AI for the next generation.”