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Looking ahead in the Nordic AI landscape with North Star AI 

When we talk about impressive strides in AI development, there is no way we would miss the big players like the United States and China or companies like Google, Baidu, Amazon and Microsoft. Home to significant investments, cutting edge research, top talent and thriving ecosystems, pushed forward and nourished by the greatest leaders in the industry – these regions serve as the epicentre of the buzz.

Yet, while focusing on the mainstream hype, we risk missing the significant leaps being taken in other parts of the world. Zooming into the Northern corner of Europe, we in fact see notable AI initiatives and strong determination to catch up in the race. The Estonia-based team behind North Star AI – a top talent community for engineers and data scientists – has taken note of its surrounding regional potential and is now leading the way in bringing Nordic AI cooperation to the next level.

We spoke to the founders of North Star AI to shine a light on these regional developments and the determined pursuit of accelerating AI impact in the EU.

Triin Mahlakõiv, Co-Founder of North Star AI

Measuring potential vs. measuring success. How can the current AI landscape in the Nordics be described? How does it compare to the big players in the field such as the United States or China? 

When mapping out the AI landscape, one of the assessments we could look to, is McKinsey’s recent report, “Notes from the AI Frontier.” Giving an overview of Europe’s position relative to countries like the US and China, it reveals the harsh yet known reality – in comparison, Europe as a whole is lagging behind. While exhibiting some significant strengths such as an increasing number of striving digital hubs, world-class research institutions and the fastest growing pool of professional developers, the continent struggles with its AI ecosystem’s fragmentation.

Nonetheless, if we break the regional bloc apart and look at its members independently, the story changes. In the AI readiness ranking, Sweden and Finland take the lead right behind the United Kingdom and the US. Estonia follows close behind with Ireland, even placing itself ahead of China. The index takes into account the “core enablers” of development such as the presence of a vibrant AI ecosystem, digital readiness, human skills and investment capacity. These factors are then weighed according to relative importance for boosting economic growth.

According to this, we can say that Northern Europe has the preconditions necessary to boost AI development: digital societies, digitally savvy citizens and supportive governments that recognise the value of going digital. The future, however, will depend on our abilities to nurture and build on the core enablers that we have in place in order to bridge the gap that separates us from the AI world leaders.

What are the key regional challenges in the field of AI that we should be focusing on?

The obstacles in the race to AI leadership already begin at the starting line. In comparison to the US or China, the natural disadvantages of smaller regions relate to scale and legacy.

The McKinsey report estimates that the US is 31 percent ahead of Europe in the AI-enablers playing field. While the reasons for this are layered, the core of it comes down to accumulation of resources and strong ecosystems that have consolidated themselves through time. The dynamics surrounding such networks have created agglomeration effects in skills, capital and education. The snowball effect further attracts resources from afar. In Europe, we see a clear brain drain to regions that already have strong AI ecosystems such as the US. Talent attracts talent, high-level skills are vital in bringing about innovation and the ecosystem keeps growing.

To overcome the problem of scale, we need to expand the regional scope of cooperation and replace what we lack in numbers with nailing down quality. Above all, this means we need to focus on tackling the fragmentation that currently characterises Europe and creating favourable conditions to challenge, maintain and unite the pool of talent that already exists in the region. Some notable European level efforts are reflected in initiatives such as Horizon 2020, which increased its investments in AI by 70% for 2018-2020, aiming to support European organisations and companies in the pursuit of AI adoption and development.

Still, AI performance and readiness varies greatly among member states. Alongside wide-scale efforts, we could benefit significantly from uniting the countries that can already be aligned strategically, culturally and in the case of Northern Europe, even geographically. By narrowing down our focus on more specific regional strengths and capitalising on those, we are creating the core of an ecosystem that can then have spillover effects on the rest of Europe.

Europe needs role models and success stories that would encourage the upcoming generation to work harder and on meaningful projects. In a nutshell, we had Skype and now there’s Spotify, but we (in North Star AI)  believe that Europe is able to achieve so much more. We need a new narrative to inspire the technologists and entrepreneurs of Europe to aim higher, to keep working on solving the most complex problems of humanity using AI and related technologies.

The road to leadership. What do you see as the greatest regional strengths that can be capitalised on to position Northern Europe among the leaders in AI? What is North Star AI bringing to the table in these efforts?

We may not have the presence of the Silicon Valley Top 5 AI leaders, but we do have talent. Besides the technical preconditions that we mentioned before, one of our greatest regional strengths is our growing pool of professionals and our recognition of this existing potential. In order to fulfil it, we need to strategically consider and combine each country’s individual strengths.

Sweden, as the clear leader of the bunch, has dedicated itself to becoming a world leader in digital technologies and AI. Seeing the country’s initiatives, we can say that in Sweden, words and actions go hand in hand. Just recently, the country launched AI Innovation of Sweden, a national centre for applied AI research and innovation. In effect, this creates a separate institution, with the sole purpose of functioning as “the engine in the Swedish AI ecosystem.” The initiative and the investments behind it, reflects the country’s dedicated efforts in strengthening its ecosystem and research as well as growing its base of AI professionals to drive the industry forward.

Finland has adopted a broader, yet equally important approach when it comes to AI education and skills training. Elements of AI – a series of free online courses created by Reaktor and the University of Helsinki – is one of the prime examples of Finland’s commitment to involving the whole of society on the path of realising the potential of AI. The initiative was kickstarted during the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the EU and intends to make the learning materials accessible in all EU official languages.

Estonia is home to a strong and ambitious startup ecosystem, which includes some promising AI players such as Starship Technologies, Veriff, Transferwise and Bolt as well as some exciting newcomers such as Snackable AI and Feelingstream. By being committed to basing and growing their team of developers and data scientists in the region, these startups are playing their part in strengthening the regional ecosystem as a whole and contributing to the spread of AI adoption. Furthermore, the Estonian government has shown support to increase the adoption of AI-based applications, as demonstrated by our national AI strategy.

The Northern European region therefore exhibits great AI potential and strategic alignment. At North Star AI, we have recognised the value that lies in combining these strengths and have planted the seeds for further growth in Nordic collaboration. Our biggest initiative is our annual conference., As Europe lacks practical case studies about applied AI, North Star AI aims to find the best data scientists of Europe and encourage them to speak up and share their war stories. The conference brings together the top AI talent, creates a forum to share best practice in applied AI and data science and thereby contributes to the growth and strengthening of our AI community.

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We hope to create a positive snowball effect. Once the tech-savvy, hands-on AI professionals start speaking up and grow stronger as a community, Europe as a region will not only attract great talent more easily, more foreign investments will start pouring in.

We have now taken a step further in consolidating the talent ecosystem and created a database mapping out the main AI leaders in the region. By doing this we are tackling one of the key questions that arises – who to turn to with questions around tech implementation or leading AI transformation in a team.  During this process, we have seen readiness for collaboration, and we are therefore optimistic about the future of our regional ecosystem.

André Karpištšenko, Co-founder of North Star AI, Head of Data Science at Bolt.

New year and a new decade. When it comes to AI and Northern Europe, what should we be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond?

For the AI industry in general, 2020 brings a greater focus on business impact as the technologies mature. Microsoft, AWS, Google, as well as next-generation companies such as DataRobot and Databricks are automating many of the engineering activities related to scaling AI within the companies. Best practices, business cases and impact expectations for automating and optimising businesses with machine learning have evolved enough to be a fit in established markets next to the technology sector.

In Estonia, we’re seeing a broader interest in technology. Governments, as well as universities, have established strategies and programs related to AI and data in general. For those looking for gains from the method, it is important to focus on high-value, high-impact business cases first, as the initial gains will vary from single to double-digit percentage points. Technical talent is also getting better connected within the region. Over the course of the year, I’d also expect to see an acceleration in growth from collaboration with neighbouring countries within Europe.

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