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Data as an Enabler: Estonia’s AI Task Force pushes for widespread Artificial Intelligence uptake

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When Estonia commenced its AI strategy some three years ago, the country had just four public sector projects using AI. As of today that number has grown to 80 projects involving 40 organisations across both the public and private sectors, a trend its AI Task Force would like to continue. 

Estonia’s AI Task Force is preparing a new strategy for artificial intelligence for this year and next that will build on initial successes in laying the groundwork for AI adoption, and aim to continue its uptake across the private and public sectors.

The new strategy engages private sector, too 

According to Ott Velsberg, who has served as the government’s Chief Data Officer since the creation of the position in 2018, the strategy will continue the momentum of the previous strategy, but also engage in new areas. While the previous strategy was focused more on public sector adoption of AI, the proposed strategy, which will be submitted to the government for approval within weeks, will expand that vision to engaging the private sector as well, while investing in R&D, education programs, legal aspects, and promoting open data as an enabler.

A man facing the camera
Estonian Government CDO Ott Velsberg

“In data as an enabler, we are focusing on open data, because it provides benefits to the public sector and private sector,” says Velsberg. One goal is that by the end of next year, there will be a tripling of open data sets available. Velsberg says this objective is achievable, as during the formation of the strategy, there were 709 of such data sets — crucial for training new AI algorithms — and at present moment there are 882. “It’s increased a lot since last year,” he notes. 

A need for high value data

In particular, the AI Task Force would like to see the addition of high value data sets, categories of data that are “extremely important for the development of AI solutions.” Estonian-language resources, in particular, are considered to be of high value for training algorithms, Velsberg says.

“AI can only be as good as the data it has, and how much data it has,” agrees Kristi Talving, deputy secretary general for business and consumer environment at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, and a member of the AI Task Force. “It’s not just a machine that makes decisions on its own, we have to give it lots of quality data,” she says. “That is something that will empower the use of AI in Estonia.”

Woman facing the camera
Kristi Talving, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

Under the new strategy, the AI Task Force is also working to make sure that the 10 most important public services will have an AI component by 2023, Velsberg notes. “The new strategy will set our direction,” says Velsberg. “How we get there though will depend on new initiatives.”

A balanced mix

Velsberg has been a member of Estonia’s AI Task Force since its inception three years ago, though it has evolved. It was initially formed as a collaboration between the Estonian government’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication and Government Office, but has included over time participants from the private and public sectors, as well as academics, such as experts from Statistics Estonia, the State Information Authority (RIA), as well as domestic IT companies like Tallinn-based Veriff, which offers a global identity verification service.

The current membership of the force includes Velsberg and Talving, as well as Luukas Ilves, Estonia’s new chief information officer; Heddi Lutterus, undersecretary for legal policy at the Ministry for Justice; Martin Eessalu, head of research infrastructure at the Ministry of Education and Research; Sille Kraam, deputy secretary general for economic development at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication; Juhak Pukk, president of the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications (ITL); and Jüri Jõema, an advisor at ITL. 

According to Velsberg, the task force meets several times a year to discuss Estonia’s AI strategy. Different ministries are responsible for delivering the strategy via their respective channels. “It’s a nice balanced mix in many respects,” says Velsberg of the task force. “It’s not just a group of people who meet and nod.”

“It’s very exciting as new developments come along,” notes Talving. “Our job is to put things to work in a way that they are safe, accessible, useful, and transparent,” she adds.

The work is also being carried out in line with objectives laid out by the European Commission in its Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence, published last year. “In Europe, it has long been of importance that all countries have an AI strategy,” underscores Velsberg. He says that it is up to all members of the task force to communicate with the EU on the subject of AI, and to carry out its activities in line with Europe’s AI strategy. 

High expectations

One of the reasons that Estonia has moved quickly to lay out and implement its AI strategy has been a slow decline in the labor force, which has pushed both the state and company to adopt AI to reduce costs and streamline organizational efficiencies. But there are also the expectations of Estonian citizens, who have grown accustomed to almost instantaneous service thanks to their busy ecosystem of digital services, and who want more and and as soon as possible. 

“For Estonians, it’s almost like a punishment to have to wait a day or so for something,” says Talving. “People are very receptive to digital solutions.”

Companies though, on the other hand, vary. The startup sector has been quick to adopt AI, but more traditional sectors have limited use about how to use it, or to employ it in their operations. It’s here that the new strategy should make inroads in terms of education companies about how AI can help them improve their businesses. “For these companies, using AI is a completely new concept,” says Talving.  

Still, the more companies and public services onboard AI, the more adoption is likely to grow. “The state has shown the way,” says Talving. “We now have more than 80 services that use AI. When others see this, they also want to adopt it,” she adds. “It’s a very cool spillover effect.”

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Written by
Justin Petrone

freelance journalist and writer

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