Incubator Blogs: The positive social impact of AI with Antti Merilehto

For the TREMOR expert, AI is a tool that, if used well, can help social entrepreneurs become even more effective.

Hello, and welcome to another addition of our series of blog posts introducing the mentors behind our incubator programmes. This post was made to promote the 2nd call of our social impact incubator programme, TREMOR. Today, we're speaking with Antti Merilehto.

Antti Merilehto, an entrepreneur, investor, and award-winning speaker, is also known for being the populariser of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Finland. Merilehto has been working with AI, machine learning, digitalisation, and customer experience for the past decade, and is the author of a book on Artificial Intelligence. He also has business experience from outside of Finland, where he worked with an open-minded approach and learned to think beyond borders.

We had a chat with Merilehto, who joined TREMOR as an expert, and asked him which social challenge he would like to tackle right now.

AI technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we live.

AI research is an interdisciplinary field, combining elements from mathematics, computer science, linguistics, psychology, and more. The goal of AI research is to create machines that can think, learn, and solve problems in an intelligent way. One of the events that led to Merilehto becoming interested in AI was when, in 2016, he was asked to moderate a discussion on the topic during Slush, the renowned start-up conference.

Merilehto excitedly describes how AI technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we live and work, improving human performance, increasing efficiency, and reducing the risk of errors. AI can automate mundane tasks, improve decision making, and provide insights that can help businesses stay ahead of the competition. To those worried about the rise of AI, he believes that whatever you do for a living, computers won’t replace you, they will simply help you to become a better you:

“Artificial Intelligence is not something good or bad, it provides tools, and those tools are here today. If what you are good at is making social impact, with the right tools you will make a bigger impact in your actions, decisions, and investments,” he explains.

Since ethics and legal implications have been in the focus of discussions lately, we asked Merilehto how AI can go in hand with being ethical:

“AI is not ethical or unethical, it’s just a tool that has been trained with data. If the teaching data that was used to teach the model was unethical, then the behaviour of the model will be unethical,” he continues.  

'I believe AI helps businesses to engage in more meaningful work using innovative approaches to address social and environmental challenges.'

As technology advances, business have begun to explore the potential of AI as a tool to improve their operations. Merilehto thinks that the positive social impact of AI can be seen in many different aspects of modern-day life. AI has enabled humans to automate mundane tasks and perform complex tasks with greater accuracy and efficiency than ever before, therefore, it seems only fair that implementing AI into a social enterprise can help it be more socially impactful:

“I believe AI helps businesses to engage in more meaningful work using innovative approaches to address social and environmental challenges. For me, real social impact is about helping people who are living in Finland find their place society whatever their way is. In that sense, entrepreneurship is an absolutely great way to make social impact because you get to produce something of value around you.”

For him, it’s important to be a member of TREMOR, where he gets to share his knowledge as an expert to a community of change-makers that want to get involved in their local environment and create a positive impact. He says that his goal is to get people in Finland away from being passive observers on the side-lines and towards active participation and doing things that affect society. “That’s my dream,” he explains.

Social enterprises and how AI can benefit them

As we continue to discuss AI and its potential impact on society, Merilehto highlights the increasing recognition that this technology has gained these days. When he started working with AI, the field was far less known than it is today.

He also brings up his entrepreneurial path, and how it has been an exciting and rewarding journey so far, although it has required a lot of hard work, dedication, and willingness to take risks. So, we ask Merilehto whether there’s a timeline for success or a set of steps to follow to build a socially driven enterprise:

“There’s no one way or right moment to become a social entrepreneur. There are so many ways. Entrepreneurs are not born, they are made – a mild sea never made a skilled sailor. As long as you live, you learn. I have learned over time that in order to benefit from tools like AI, it’s essential to understand how to proceed from the beginning.”

When asking Merilehto what skills are essential for an aspiring entrepreneur, he highlighted the importance of focusing on finding the right customers, being able to change your decisions timely, and being ready to pivot when needed. But most important, he says, is to understand who you are and find the people who supplement you. He then adds, laughing, that hiring a good accountant is also a crucial step for all entrepreneurs.

The TREMOR expert also believes that good communication can help to ensure that everyone involved in the team is on the same page:

“Communicate in a way that everyone is at the level of what is expected but keep in mind that no person is an island. Be nice. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room, it helps if you are the nicest.”

Finally, as the first TREMOR approaches its end and the call for the 2nd edition draws near, Merilehto wants to remind current and future TREMOR participants to remember to enjoy the ride:

“Whatever your social cause is, remember to have fun in the process! Everyone needs to feel like they belong but at the same time we must have courage to have fun. In TREMOR, I feel like I belong to a community of innovators with unique expertise skills, and that’s really great.”