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Welcome to E-stonia: A digital pioneer stakes a claim in AI’s landscape

While his country marks 20 years of public sector digital leadership, Estonia’s Chief Information Officer says now is no time to rest on their laurels.

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The better the question

How does a small nation realize big plans in AI?

Building on its history of digital innovation, Estonia’s AI plans are just getting started.

Facing meteoric growth of artificial intelligence (AI), automation and powerful data applications with tremendous potential for improving government services, Estonia’s Chief Information Officer Siim Sikkut recognizes that yesterday’s wins are no guarantee of tomorrow’s success.

“Two decades ago, Estonia made a decision to embrace digital technologies, particularly in improving the delivery and efficiency of public services,” explains Sikkut, citing the country’s international reputation as a leader in e-Government and the most advanced digital society in the world according to Wired. “That commitment continues to pay off, but both the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology means we must plan our next steps carefully.”

Today, an astonishing 99 percent of citizen interactions with Estonian services are conducted online — from accessing court papers to voting to filling medical prescriptions and more — enabled by a unique digital identifier created for each citizen. And already the country is deploying data-driven technologies, whether it is machine learning that identifies and addresses cyber anomalies in government web traffic, algorithms that match people with jobs or real-time data that helps police services locate stolen cars —to name just a few applications.

The combination of mature digital infrastructure and a culture of innovation has created a national state of readiness to harness AI and other emerging technologies. But like many leaders in public and private sector organizations alike, Sikkut and his colleagues are grappling to exploit these innovations for optimal impact, while balancing finite resources and the demands of other national priorities.

“We’re eager to harness these new technologies to drive better value and impact for Estonia’s citizens and economy, but we’re a small country; we can’t do everything,” he explains. “We also must be intelligent about managing risks in uncharted territory.” Well aware of the accelerating pace of technological evolution, Sikkut knows that the country needs to move quickly to hone its priorities before the technologies get too far ahead of any strategy the government may develop.

In short, building on a long history of digital innovation, Estonia is now asking a new question: “How do we both benefit and protect our country from the impacts of AI?”

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The better the answer

Global perspectives give shape to a future-forward national strategy

Mobilizing stakeholders’ shared sense of purpose and EY’s global experience reveals new paths to AI success.

Sikkut turned to EY for support in charting a course through this new landscape.

From the start, Keith Strier, EY’s global and Americas Advisory Leader for Artificial Intelligence and the Lead Partner on the project, was impressed both by Estonia’s record of public sector innovation and its passionate commitment to expanding that leadership into the next frontier of digital transformation.

“Estonia has embraced new technologies with a relentless focus on improving service delivery for their citizens while realizing important value and efficiency drivers,” he explains. “But without a thoughtful national AI strategy to guide their next steps, that leadership is at risk.” Strier points to external pressures such as the speed with which technology is outpacing planning; complex legal considerations for AI; escalating cyber-risks and an increasingly competitive global environment around emerging tech.

In turn, Sikkut and his ministry colleagues were eager to tap into EY’s global insights on public policy and private sector AI trends, multidisciplinary experience in the infusion of emerging technologies such as AI into enterprise operations and the implications for AI on issues including ethics, privacy and law.

The EY teams moved quickly to build their understanding of Estonia’s state of readiness for AI and other data technologies. The engagement features three parallel tracks:

  1. Program operations to support the Estonia National AI Taskforce
  2. Provide ongoing insight on trends, developments and milestones across the public policy and private sector to inform and shape the AI action plan 
  3. Support the selection of a law firm partner to advance the development of a national AI legal framework

The EY team worked with Sikkut and colleagues to pull together a multidisciplinary taskforce to better understand the issues and goals of key players. Ministries, policy stakeholders, experts from the research community and private sector representatives collaborated in informed discussions about impacts, barriers and considerations that would shape a national AI strategy. Eventually the team will engage a wider audience in the consultation process, expanding to machine learning specialists and other data and tech experts, additional private sector leaders and more. 

We can already see how existing AI models, automation tools and more can help drive productivity, reduce costs and, most importantly, deliver better outcomes for the public.
Siim Sikkut,
Estonia’s Chief Information Officer

“The group shares a sense of urgency and focus on the quality of service that AI can enable,” says Sikkut. “Together, we are asking: how can these technologies improve our experiences and serve our people better?”

One key outcome to date is a clearer map of the opportunities within reach for the Estonian government. “We know we can do more with the data we already collect,” explains Sikkut. “We can already see how existing AI models, automation tools and more can help drive productivity, reduce costs and, most importantly, deliver better outcomes for the public.”

Concurrently with the taskforce activities, Strier and the EY team launched the legal component of the engagement. They started by developing the proposal and bid invitations that would help the government secure the best-fit law firm to examine key legal, privacy and related considerations associated with tomorrow’s technologies, from autonomous vehicles to cyber liabilities to data protection and more.

The team aims to present a comprehensive national AI strategic action plan to the new government which will be formed following the Estonian parliamentary elections in Spring 2019. “Estonia is fortunate to have developed a culture of innovation, with a strong bias to action,” says Sikkut. “With all the promise and complexities of these technologies, we want to be ready to move wisely, but also quickly in staking our claim.”

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The better the world works

Staking a claim in a new industrial revolution

A cohesive national AI strategy aims to harness emerging technologies to serve citizens better.

Strier agrees that an important facet of the project is what he calls ‘intelligent velocity,’ arguing that the next chapter has tremendous potential to unlock benefits for Estonia but only if they move quickly to map out where to focus, where to invest and how to manage legal, governance and ethical issues along the way.

That’s because emerging technologies —part of the broader Fourth Industrial Revolution—are shifting the basis for global economic competitiveness and challenging the nature of work and human purpose. “In fact, AI offers smaller countries the opportunity to punch above their weight,” explains Strier, who points to Canada, Finland and Singapore as examples of smaller countries making global waves through their nationally-sponsored AI programs.

“A failure to map out your best play and coordinate resources effectively will impact a country’s future standing on the world stage, without question.” However, the grand challenge with AI, explains Strier, is that it intersects with every facet of society and government —economic policy, national security, citizen experience, transportation and energy, infrastructure, the judicial system and industry. Prioritization and focus are critical.

For his part, Sikkut is optimistic about the potential of emerging data-based technologies to deliver meaningful benefits to Estonian citizens. “This nation has been bold and courageous in proving how technology and digitization can improve the quality of daily life for people. AI, analytics and automation are just the latest stage in our ongoing journey.”

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