Estonia: from the judges of the IA to the robot bartenders, is the post-Soviet state the dark horse of digital technology?



June 16, 2019 05:55:28

Walking through the fairytale streets of the capital Estonia, Tallinn, it may seem difficult to believe that this small nation is home to one of the most advanced e-governance systems in the world.

Key points:

  • Estonia was one of the first countries to declare Internet access as a human right
  • 99% of government services are available online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • 50 new AI applications are set to become online in the public sector by 2020

Even among the trendy cafes and restored buildings of the modest downtown area, there are few signs of a thriving high-tech private sector – apart from the occasional Mars-tramp style delivery robots that roam.

But in less than 30 years, Estonia has transformed from a struggling post-Soviet state to one of the most digitized nations in the world.

It has digitally rationalized an unprecedented number of public services, with 50 new governmental Artificial Intelligence (AI) projects set to come online within the next year.

A burgeoning IT start-up culture has also produced robotic baristas and delivery robots as well as technological giants like Bolt, Playtech, TransferWise and Skype, later sold to Microsoft.

In 2001, Estonia became one of the first countries to declare Internet access as a human right and in 2014 it launched the first electronic residence system in the world, allowing digital residents to open and manage a & Estonian business from anywhere in the world entirely online.

"It's an exciting country," Professor Toby Walsh, a leading researcher in the field of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, told ABB.

"In terms of digital connectivity and platforms, they are one of the best nations on the planet."

So, how has a nation of just 1.3 million inhabitants become a technology giant and how is Australia on top of its success?

The fall of the Soviet Union opens a "window of opportunity"

After 51 years of occupation, Estonia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Before the collapse, Estonia had undergone a period of hyperinflation and the basic articles such as bread and sugar had been rationed, explained Tarmo Jüristo, chairman of the board of directors for Estonian thinkmake Praxis.

The new independent government has faced a monumental task of reconstructing crumbling infrastructure and restructuring the economy and social services in a country with limited resources.

But starting from scratch, although often seen as negative, it has been viewed as a unique "window of opportunity".

"Estonia did not have the problem of legacy systems," said Jüristo.

"Virtually everything had to be built from scratch and in many ways, this is much simpler than having to work with many existing systems."

Jüristo added that the main factors that helped the rapid transformation of Estonia were a small population, a positive attitude towards technology and a "relatively high level of trust in the state and the public sector".

The young emerging government proposed to capitalize on this and build a digital society, and in the mid-1990s undertook a series of accelerated reforms to modernize the economy, also joining the European Union and to NATO in 2004.

Today, while Estonia is still below Western Europe in terms of living standards, its education system has been classified the best in Europe and the third in the world in the latest report of the International Student Assessment Program (PISA).

Queues for government services are now a thing of the past, with 99% available online 24/7, including voting and automated tax returns, which take 3-5 minutes on average.

Ott Jalakas, co-founder of AI Lingvist adaptive learning platform, said that the efficiency has become a normality.

He described with irritation and humor the only time he was forced to physically visit a government office to record the name of his newborn daughter, which can only be done online for married couples.

"I still talk about it after two years, so obviously it was super annoying," he said, adding that the process took about 10 minutes.

"But this shows how we are so used to this system."

Estonian citizen Kristjan Lorentson was surprised by the inefficiency of some government services when he spent two years living in Australia.

"The way you guys are making tax returns was like nuclear physics," Lorentson said.

But while young Estonians expect everything to be "quick and easy", he said that digitization was more of a challenge for the older generation.

& # 39; Eliminates the human element & # 39 ;: Estonia becomes e-Estonia

Professor Walsh said that Estonia has become "the daughter of the poster" for nations such as Australia in both connecting government services and gaining public trust.

"From a country that came out of the communist era where everyone looked at everyone and there was a lot of distrust in the government, they turned it all over," he said.

While Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere are experiencing a "technical reaction" – in which the public is largely wary of how governments manage data – Estonia has built a data transparency system, has added.

Long before the emergence of the blocking chain, Estonia built its government documents around a similar principle called X-Road, which is now used by NATO, the US Department of Defense and throughout the EU "to ensure computer security", according to the e-Training Center for Estonia.

The system allows data to be stored in a series of connected networks rather than in a comprehensive program.

Although it allows all government departments to easily access data collected by other departments, it also allows Estonian citizens to see exactly who has had access to such data and to challenge suspicious behavior.

The encrypted and encrypted identity cards also allow citizens to do anything from access to government services and public transport to the taking of medical prescriptions with automatically applicable discounts, explained Ott Velsberg, head of the data from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

"We have a great idea to make the government seamless or work in the background – eliminate the human element," said Velsberg at ABC.

Citizen information is collected once and then used anywhere, he said, giving the example of birth records.

"Because the parent should go to register that child for a nursery or apply for a loan for childhood and so on. All this is done automatically."

Velsberg said that 50 new AI government projects are scheduled for next year, including satellite waste detection that will send automatic messages to related cleaning crews and a robot judge that will further automate the small claims litigation system.

The satellites are already used to monitor agricultural projects, legal and illegal logging and ice detection in the Baltic Sea, which saves the government over 1 million euros (1.6 million dollars) and shipping companies 2 million (3.3 million dollars) a year.

"We already have a 5G network and self-driving cars"

The first technology classes for young people have contributed to growing innovation and a technology-based workforce.

Birgy Lorenz, cyber-security scientist at Tallinn University of Technology, was instrumental in developing teaching strategies and curriculum for primary students.

The technology and coding were first introduced as extracurricular activities starting from first grade in 2012, but have since expanded into common classes in many schools, he said.

"About 150 schools are active in implementing many new technologies, from drones to virtual / augmented reality to coding for anything," said Lorenz at the ABC of CyberOlympics, an annual event he organizes in Tallinn.

The goal is to expand the program to all Estonian schools by next year, further encouraging a thriving private sector.

"We already have a 5G network, self-driving cars and ships and some interesting learning analyzes," said Lorenz.

Mr Jalakas, from AI Lingivista adaptive learning platform, said the small forces of Estonia start-up companies like yours to think big.

The usual process in a country like Australia is to start domestic life, but adapting to the international market can be a struggle and many companies fail, he said, while in Estonia the "first version" is a global project.

"The internal market is practically non-existent, so it is necessary to create a scalable product (for an international market)", he said.

"This disadvantage turns into an advantage because our mentality is immediately international."

Mr Jalakas' company, Lingvist, which uses artificial intelligence algorithms to customize language learning, does not include the Estonian language, but rather launched in English and several European and Asian languages, and the algorithms themselves have been developed with plans expansion in other learning areas such as mathematics and physics.

This first design principle was also the basis for much of the success of Estonia.

Jalakas said that databases and technology in many countries, including the UK, are still based on the architecture of the 80's.

But everything in Estonia started in the mid-1990s, skipping these early models and creating a more advanced technology base.

Mr Jalakas, whose background is in the financial sector, gave the example of bank checks that never existed in Estonia.

"We had nothing and then we had internet banking," he said.

At the beginning of the century, while the rest of the world was in a panic over the Y2K insect, Jalakas said "we were laughing and drinking champagne".

Australia has the technology but lacks implementation

Professor Walsh said that even Australia has a lot to boast about when it comes to artificial intelligence and technology.

"We punch our weight," he said, adding that Australia is among the top 10 in the world for AI technology.

Australia has the longest train robot on the planet, some of the world's most automated ports and mines and five world titles in robot soccer.

So why are Australians still on Centrelink and regularly supplying the same data to different parts of the government?

Privacy concerns have been one of the causes of resistance to public service digitization efforts.

"The e-health government records are a classic example," said Professor Walsh.

"This has great potential to improve our health, stop the mistakes made when you are hospitalized, yet it was wrong, badly sold, misapplied."

Another concern for many Australians is the potential loss of jobs, but Professor Walsh said that there are many misconceptions about figures that do not take into account the jobs created.

"One thing that is really clear is that there will be a great period of interruption," he said.

"Any new work will be created that will be very different from the old jobs being destroyed."

But Mr. Velberg said in Estonia that the idea is "not just to replace people, but to give them time to work on more precious things".

"To be honest, if you can automate these jobs, then they shouldn't exist," he said.


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