In December 2017, Finland’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment released its first report outlining the country’s artificial intelligence strategy, “Finland’s age of artificial intelligence – Turning Finland into a leading country in the application of artificial intelligence.” Authored by a steering committee of leading Finn economists and technologists, the report sets a bold vision for the nation’s future when it comes to developing and using artificial intelligence: “In another five years time, artificial intelligence will be an active part of every Finn’s daily life.”
An AI assistant for the public sector
Compared to other strategic reports from other European nations on AI strategy, Finland’s age of artificial intelligence places a strong emphasis on the applications of AI in the public sector. The report includes a full chapter declaring, “We will build the world’s best public services.” This jives with the nation’s reputation for world-class public services in health care, education, and other areas. The public sector is also a major economic driver in Finland, employing around a quarter of the country’s total employed population in 2015.
Among the most interesting parts of the report is a short section introducing the idea of an AI assistant to help streamline public sector operations:
“There are numerous examples in the private sector in which artificial intelligence has been harnessed to serve people. One such harnessed servant is the smart phone. Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby are personal servants which learn to serve you, the user, specifically. Why wouldn’t the public sector do the same?”
The report intimates that work is underway on a national customer service and general AI assistant, “Aurora,” open to all Finnish citizens and designed to assist in identifying and accessing public services. However, the report does not specify how or when the assistant is or will be built.
“Aurora, what can you do?”
Aurora would be the first AI assistant built by and for a country’s public sector, complementing the slew of private AI assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the Google Assistant. The Aurora plan has some precedent in Finland’s public services, as the Finnish Immigration Service already uses a robotic assistant to answer calls in a multitude of languages and direct callers automatically to different organizations for particular questions and requests.
So, what exactly will Aurora be able to do? At this point, we don’t really know. The report provides few details apart from the announcement that work on the project is underway. In addition, a Google search on the relevant terms (Aurora, AI, assistant, Finland, etc.) comes up with almost nothing, aside from an article published on the City of Helsinki’s website that briefly mentions, “Finland is building, and soon using, the citizen’s virtual assistant Aurora, through which Finns can talk directly with the public authorities.”
Knowing what other AI assistants are capable of, however, allows us to speculate on how Aurora might be used to benefit Finland’s public sector. Like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Bixby, a public sector AI assistant should employ NLP (natural language processing) to take open-ended requests for information or assistance and direct users appropriately. This functionality has already revolutionized customer service in the private sector, with more and more companies deploying “smart” call answering systems and chatbots to save time and labor.
More complex functionality could include scheduling for public sector appointments and services, emergency alerts for crisis situations, and even recommender systems for areas like career services or health care (I.e. “There’s a career fair you may be interested in” or “Here’s where you can get a flu shot”).
The US Federal AI Personal Assistant Program
While Finland’s Aurora would be the first standalone AI assistant for public services, other nations have considered ways to implement AI assistant technology. In 2017, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) opened the US Federal AI Personal Assistant Program, a collaborative initiative for “… the effective, efficient and accountable introduction and benchmark of public service information integration into consumer-available AI Personal Assistants (IPAs) including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, Oracle Adaptive Intelligence Applications and Facebook Messenger’s chatbot service.”
Through in-person hackathons as well as forums on its Github page, the program has accumulated a variety of interesting concepts and use cases for how existing AI assistants can integrate with US public services. For example, the Department of Energy integration would allow users to ask Google or Alexa questions like “What are the best settings for my thermostat?” and “What’s the best type of insulation for my home?” The public is invited to contribute suggestions and ideas on the GSA’s Github.
We can hope for more information on Finland’s Aurora program in April 2019, when the AI steering committee of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment plans to release another, more thorough report. For now, learn more about the growth of data science and AI in Europe by joining business leaders, academics, policy makers, and AI experts at ODSC Europe in London later this month.