Understanding the ethics of artificial intelligence is becoming a civic skill – An online course provides keys to the technology

The use of artificial intelligence raises concerns, as it can bring about major societal change, both for the good and the bad. The free-of-charge Ethics of AI online course helps to understand what the ethically acceptable use of AI means, and what and what it requires of societies and individuals.

The Ethics of AI course was introduced to the public in late 2020, first in English and a little later in Finnish and Swedish. Last year, the course attracted more than 2,000 active students, while more than 60,000 individuals have browsed the course material. One of the reasons for its popularity is that the course has been designed for a variety of people from different educational backgrounds.

The person in charge of the content of the course is philosopher Anna-Mari Rusanen, a university lecturer in cognitive science and a senior specialist in the ethical and societal aspects of AI at the Ministry of Finance. Some years ago, Rusanen noticed that students started to show unprecedented interest in questions related to the use of AI.

– I had taught courses on the philosophy of artificial intelligence in cognitive science, and suddenly people started to flock to this elective philosophy course. I was constantly asked about the topic, Rusanen says.

Rusanen’s courses in the philosophy of AI were among the first of their kind in both Finland and Europe. At the same time, Rusanen also started working as a senior specialist in artificial intelligence at the Ministry of Finance. Soon, she realised that the situation was similar outside the University as well.

– The demand for material on the topic was just as great among public administration and various officials as among students. The themes on people’s minds were the same, and they were looking for more information. There were endless questions about the topic, but we had no current and relevant material available related to the societal effects of artificial intelligence, Rusanen says.

The idea for an online course began to take form in the late winter of 2019. Professor Teemu Roos and Docent Patrik Floréen brought the matter up with Rusanen, and soon it was decided that a MOOC, or a massive open online course, would be designed on the ethics of artificial intelligence. 

– I had previously created online learning materials and taught online, so it was natural for me to take the lead, says Rusanen.

In addition to Rusanen, Doctoral Researcher Santeri Räisänen, Professor Jukka K. Nurminen, Director of Department Sasu Tarkoma, illustrator Saara Halmetoja and the MOOC centre of the University of Helsinki contributed to establishing the course.

It took almost a year to plan and implement the course.

– The process was really long, which was also a boon, since a lot of things relating to the use of AI took place in Finland during that year. This enabled us to design a genuinely topical course. Piece by piece, we gained a range of partners, thus establishing the final concept for the course, Rusanen says.

International interest awakened quickly

Soon after the online course was finalised, Rusanen began receiving enquiries from around the world.

– I was contacted from South and Central America as soon as the course was published. They wanted to start collaborating with us. A number of UN organisations have also been in contact, asking whether these skills could be disseminated to regions where major societal change is only just beginning, Rusanen says.

According to Rusanen, Finland is seen globally as a leader in many things, including the digitalisation and algorithmisation of public administration.

– We enjoy the reputation of a stable and well-organised Finnish society. We are living at the forefront of digitalisation in Finland, which has also been noticed elsewhere.

Keys to success

From the start, the course was planned with a strategic approach, with the aim of making it suitable for different groups of people.

– The course is suitable for employees of public administration and businesses with no coding skills or technical background. In their case, the course offers information on computing and software. At the same time, we wanted to cater for people with strong technical skills but no societal competencies. The course design provides something for everyone, Rusanen explains.

Also important is that the course includes topical examples from real life.

Certainly, the Ethics of AI course at the University of Helsinki is not the only one of its kind. Many similar courses are available, but most of them are subject to a fee, and you need a good network connection to complete them.

– One big benefit of all University of Helsinki MOOCs is that you can complete them using just a mobile phone or a slower network connection, since these courses don’t contain any videos or other material that requires a lot of bandwidth, says Rusanen.

A big boost was given by Elements of AI, a previously published MOOC.

– The work done by Teemu Roos and his collaborators has been a great help, since the MOOC brand and concept was already there, Rusanen says.

Understanding the ethics of artificial intelligence opens your eyes to changes in administrative models

According to Rusanen, algorithms have become profoundly societal issues. They are transforming the way society works.

– Algorithms are changing our administrative models. Instead of changing society by suddenly engendering new values or opinions on what society should be, they reshape the ways in which societal structures are built, Rusanen says.

How much understanding of algorithms does Rusanen think citizens should have?

– At least enough to understand how they are used, so that they can assess whether they consider the direction of development good or bad.

Rusanen has received a lot of feedback where people who have completed the course tell her that they had not realised that the use of technical solutions involves questions of human rights, how algorithms affect privacy or the right to work, or how much the right to education will change due to algorithms. In other words, the values in question are significant.

But why has understanding the ethics of artificial intelligence become such a necessary civic skill?

– Algorithms are rapidly becoming part of every level of our society. They are forcing us to consider why we do things the way we do and decide whether this is the kind of society we want to live in. How we utilise technology is a question that will have an impact on everyone’s life in the future.

In the Ethics of AI course, these questions are explored through real-life cases, giving consideration to what can and cannot be done in order to develop artificial intelligence in an ethically more sustainable manner.