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Highlights from Tallinn Digital Summit 2019: living with AI

This week saw the third annual Tallinn Digital Summit with a special focus on AI for public value. The event brought together more than 200 experts from 23 countries, including top leaders from the government level as well as private sector and scientists.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in his opening words compared innovation to the steam engine, except that now we have arrived in a time where every day we invent a new steam engine. “AI is here, and we have to learn to use it to make our lives better,” he said, talking about the Estonian government-initiated AI strategy and how there are already a little over 20 machine learning based solutions live in the Estonian public sector. He also emphasized that in Estonia the citizen is always the owner of their own data and our digital ecosystem, that relies on distributed architecture, does not include big brother.

Utilizing AI in governments and democracy, smart cities, healthcare, as well as legal and ethical aspects were discussed in panels. The day was wrapped up with a special focus on how AI can help in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals.

How do we co-exist with AI

A lot of the discussions revolved around defining AI and the expectations that we have for it. Ben Cerveny, from the Foundation for Public Code, said that we expect AI to act like a human, a peer or even a godlike entity. “That is a very precarious position to be in. As governments, we should not frame these solutions as something mythical. Intelligence does not mean sentience, it’s much more,” he said speaking at the AI in smart cities panel.

Dr. Ralf-Martin Soe, also speaking at the same panel, said: “AI by default is designed to follow the rules, people are designed to break or rewrite the rules. You either limit human creativity to break the rules as much as possible or keep the robots in closes environments.”

Representatives from countries shared their examples of progress in co-existing with AI so far, most notably the Norwegian Minister of Digitalisation, Nikolai Astrup talked about testing self-driving vehicles and Norway having even allocated a fjord for testing autonomous ships.

Interoperability and inclusivity

Working together as countries and communities is crucial and this was stressed across panels and keynotes. Between Estonia and Finland data exchange is already in a very good position thanks to the X-Road. Need for similar solutions has already been identified by many other countries, but not only – there is need also on municipality level. For example, Stephen Lorimer from the Greater London Authority, spoke of need for interoperability between the 33 London boroughs.

Of course, the biggest question is how we can use AI and data to build a better society for us where nobody is left behind. Stina Billinger, State Secretary to the Swedish Minister for Business, Industry and Innovation said that faster policy innovation is crucial. “Digital exclusivity needs political answers to make sure that the opportunities and benefits of AI are creating a good environment for everyone,” she said. Maria Rautavirta from the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications illustrated how in Finland inclusivity begins from understanding – a public online course by the University of Helsinki aims to demystify AI. So far already more than 100 000 Finns have taken the course, according to Rautavirta.

Doing good with AI

The day concluded with how to utilize AI for good and solutions that help achieve the UN SDGs and relieve humanitarian crises around the world. Benjamin Kumpf from the UK Department for International Development, stressed the importance of designing for the actual user, not designing elsewhere and importing the solution to the end users. Julien Cornebise, from ElementAI, illustrated how satellite data and computer vision can help organizations doing humanitarian work channel their efforts better.

The Summit also saw Estonian tech companies coming together in the name of environmental sustainability by announcing the Green Pledge. It’s an initiative to make business operations fully sustainable by 2030.

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