Donating time – for the world

The University of Helsinki and Reaktor designed an online course that has taught the basics of artificial intelligence to thousands of people all across the globe. Hanna Hagström from Reaktor explains why it was worth donating working hours.

Could people be interested in artificial intelligence?

This was the question under consideration in the autumn of 2017 after the technology company Reaktor relocated to University-owned facilities at Think Corner in the city centre of Helsinki.

Specialists of computer science at the University and experts at Reaktor started developing a free online course to teach the basics of artificial intelligence to the public in a simple and fun way.

Interest in artificial intelligence did indeed exist.

The Elements of AI course, launched in May 2018, has become the most popular course in the history of the University of Helsinki. To this day, more than 150,000 people have registered for the course all across the globe.

The course is available in Finnish and English, and from early summer 2019 onwards also in Swedish, in addition to which other language versions are upcoming. The course has enjoyed wide visibility in the media both in Finland and abroad.

“Our most ambitious dream is, together with other countries, to reach one percent of the global population. That’s totally insane, but why not aim for it?” says Teemu Roos, associate professor of computer science.

Reaktor has given its contribution free of charge.

“As a business, we wish to be involved in meaningful projects. Artificial intelligence is revolutionising society, and we think knowledge about it should be available to all,” says Hanna Hagström, Reaktor’s director of artificial intelligence.

Associate Professor Teemu Roos produced the course’s text content, in addition to which the University provided the required technological platform. As for Reaktor, the company designed the appearance and user experience for the course. Marketing was carried out by both Reaktor and the University.

Hagström is still amazed by how effortlessly everything went.

“We genuinely teamed up,” she says.

It all starts from shared values

Reaktor has not calculated the hours spent on implementing the course. That is a minor detail.

“Above all, our goal was to establish well-functioning cooperation with the University. We have of course gained international attention, and increased recognition may benefit us in the future,” Hagström notes.

What advice does Hagström have for businesses that wish to collaborate with the University? She believes mutual openness, trust and above all a shared set of values are needed to succeed.

“We were successful because everyone considered Elements of AI a valuable task. If one of the parties had taken an opportunistic approach, we wouldn’t have achieved all this.”

Research-based knowledge benefits businesses

Hagström believes that cooperation between businesses and universities will only intensify, as both have something to give to each other.

“Researchers’ in-depth expertise could propel businesses to make better decisions, while businesses recognise business opportunities and have the capability for agile development, something which would be useful for universities. Support from businesses could also result in the faster practical application of basic research,” Hagström says.

Elements of AI has been the first joint effort by Reaktor and the University of Helsinki, but it is unlikely to be the last.

“We definitely want to carry out more shared projects in the future.”