What we can learn from Sweden and Finland about preparing the public for a future with AI

If you ask technologists what technology is primed to change the world the most in the next 20 years, AI is likely to come up. Labor economists  and AI experts are frequently citing the disruptive effects AI is likely to have on the workforce and an impending skills shortage to manage this new future of artificial intelligence. But there is scant evidence that policy makers are investing in efforts to prepare the public for this brave new world. A notable exception is found in the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, where robust government efforts to educate the public in AI were launched in 2018. The stated goal of this effort is to, “make Sweden a leader in harnessing the opportunities that the use of AI can offer, with the aim of strengthening Sweden’s welfare and competitiveness.” 

Sweden is working toward this goal with three main tactics: public education, an emphasis on social good, and a proactive approach to regulation based on trust. 

Public Education

One of the critical pillars of this Nordic model is investing in skill building and education at the university level to develop AI talent. Universities are developing interdisciplinary talent to both build AI and to deploy the technology in a way that serves the public interest and education certification for post-degree learning is well underway. But these countries recognize that developing an educated workforce is not sufficient; the public must be educated as well. A government innovation agency, Vinnova, established AI Sweden to serve and educate the public and, “contribute to a culture of sharing, cooperation, and action in the Swedish AI-ecosystem.” AI Sweden has the stated goal of educating 1% of the population with the basics of AI technology. To date, over 32,000 people have signed up for the free Elements of AI course online. This course was initially developed by the University of Helsinki and is now available in 21 different languages. Topics range from the technical (naive Bayes classification) to the philosophical (the societal implications of AI) and are aimed at a general audience. 

Like any new technology, there is a learning curve as experts and society at large figure out how to adapt. When the printing press revolutionized information sharing in the mid 15th century, Swedish biologist Conrad Gessner warned that the new invention would inundate the public with information that would be “confusing and harmful” to the mind. But Swedish leadership seems to have learned from the past and is taking steps to prepare the mind of the public for this newest evolution in information technology. 

Elina Lepomaki, a member of the Finnish Parliament has said that “for AI to be successful, not only do we have to develop it; we must also work on finding diverse ways of utilizing AI. And it’s not just up to engineers, which is why it’s so great that the Elements of AI course is free for anyone to attend.” This Nordic model of AI education for the public has been embraced by Sundar Pichi, the CEO of Google who has said that he wishes other countries would adopt Finland’s model. 

Leading with Social Good

There is no shortage of terrifying headlines about AI. Elon Musk has warned of AI-enabled killer robots and Stephen Hawking has said AI could be the end of the human race. There are very real concerns about privacy, ethics, and how to effectively regulate a constantly evolving technology. But AI, like any tool, is shaped by how it’s used. Society has a choice to make about how to use this technology and the Nordic model has chosen to lead very vocally and publicly with the benefits of AI. Finland’s Center for AI’s key message is that, “Artificial intelligence isn’t something that exists in an academic vacuum. We promote AI that effectively benefits society and industry, and helps solve the real-life problems of real people. The issues artificial intelligence still faces across fields in science, technology and society—data efficiency, trust & ethics, and understandability—are also the keys for creating the new wave of the coming AI revolution.” Finland acknowledges that trust and social good are key ingredients for a just, AI-enabled future. AI Sweden makes clear how AI can address climate change, customized health care, and improve agriculture and forestry

These countries aren’t naive about the risks of AI. The Swedish government clearly acknowledges that cyber-attacks, manipulated data, and disinformation assaults on democracy are all potential risks of widespread adoption of artificial intelligence. But the public message acknowledges the risks and earns trust with the public by highlighting the rewards. 

Trust and Proactive Regulation 

Data is the raw material for artificial intelligence and, much like the oil booms of the early 20th century, we are living in the wild west of this new frontier. Ownership, collection, and the protection of data is critical for the success of AI but is also where the most risk lies.The EU has been leading the way with the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 but more policy will be needed to establish trust from the public and ensure a well-managed pipeline of data. The Nordic countries are known for high levels of social trust which certainly helps the adoption of a new technology with broadly publicized risks but there are lessons here for countries that do not have a high baseline level of trust. For example, Finland’s regulatory approach is to regulate the use of artificial intelligence and not the underlying technology. This focus on application rather than technical components frames a complex technology with social consequences and grounds policy conversations in the public interest. 

Public Response

Taken together, these lessons provide a framework for using AI to not only serve the public, but to build the future of AI with the public. And public opinion polling shows the effectiveness of framing artificial intelligence as a social good and educating the public in how it works and why trust and security are of utmost importance. According to a Pew Research poll in 2020, 60% of Swedes agree that the development of artificial intelligence has been a good thing for society. In contrast only 37% of French respondents and 53% of respondents from the United States feel that these technological advances have been positive.

Much like the computing revolution in the late 20th century, AI is going to change our society in unpredictable ways. But the choices we make now in implementing and applying artificial intelligence will determine how successful and effective humanity is at leveraging technology for the greater good. The Nordic model of AI is making the choice to invest in education and policy that prioritizes artificial intelligence as a tool for the public interest. I hope the rest of the world is taking note. 

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