Vinnova: Sweden needs a clear direction in AI development

13 May 2024 | Network Updates | Update from Vinnova
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

Sweden has the conditions to take big, fast steps in AI development. But in order to succeed, clear direction from the government and visionary leadership throughout society is needed. The time is now, and it is urgent. That's what some of Sweden's leading AI experts say to Vinnova.

The global AI development is going fast and it is clear what great values can be created. Om Sverige must be able to use AI to its full capacity, both to create a better society and increase our global competitiveness, we need to take big steps on our AI journey. But what do we need to prioritize? Vinnova talked to some key people with unique perspectives on the national AI development.

Göran Lindsjö is an international AI advisor and has a background as a serial entrepreneur and as an advisor at the Government Office. He often encounters what he calls a "problematic self-image" in Sweden and among politicians. Their picture is that Sweden is far ahead in AI development, despite a modest 17th place on Global AI-index and 44th place in the subcategory that deals with coordinated strategy from the government.

Göran Lindsjö is nevertheless optimistic. Sweden has strengths to build on, and he particularly highlights the rapid and strategic AI development within large Swedish export companies and Sweden's high percentage of startups per capita. He points out that countries at the forefront of AI development all have a clear national strategic priority and a strong collaboration with industry. They allow the export industry to lead the way, ensuring that smaller businesses and the public sector can benefit from this. Göran Lindsjö believes that there can be advantages in not being first.

"We have a huge opportunity, if we just start working a little harder with AI than we have done so far and are not as laid back as we have been in the last ten years. If we are now late to the party, we have the advantage of being able to look at experiences and things that have gone well and less well in other countries" he says.

We need to start using AI for real

The Knut and Alice Wallenbergs foundation is an important actor for AI development in Sweden. The foundation runs Sweden's largest research program linked to AI, Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program (WASP), where SEK 6.3 billion is invested in basic research and training of researchers for Swedish industry. Sara Mazur, executive member of the foundation and formerly responsible for the WASP program, was involved in the start of the program during his time as head of research at Ericsson. She says that the program's graduate school has so far graduated around 120 doctors. Almost all of them remain in the country, of which two-thirds are active in industry and one-third in academia.

"We have invested a lot in basic research and it is paying off. But the use of AI still happens a lot in the form of test systems and demos. We need to get started and start using AI for real in production, in products and services, in businesses and in the public sector. It's too slow there and we need to help, above all small and medium-sized companies, to get started and use AI for real."

Proposal for a Swedish AI strategy

This spring, AI Sweden, who works to push the application of AI, released an AI strategy for Sweden. An important objective of the strategy is to get leaders in the public sector to get started with the application of AI.

"We want to really push the leaders out there. You can see it as a guide, a way of thinking and a real call to get started. We also believe that the strategy is applicable as input to decision-makers in the public sector for how to allocate funds and catalyze faster progress. Leadership from the government with incentives to develop this in collaboration with the public sector, and share solutions between each other, would be a very successful Swedish model." says Martin Svensson, CEO AI Sweden.

Johan Harvard is head of strategic AI at Silo AI, which helps companies and organizations develop operations and products with the help of AI. He sees a divided picture in Sweden. A lot is happening at a few companies, which have had to adapt to the global competitive picture, while many others are stuck in a wait-and-see mode and do not dare to invest.

Like the other AI experts, he calls for a clear direction from Sweden's government.

"Look at France, Canada and others. You don't have all the answers, but the government points out the direction and sets up an ambitious objective. Sweden could do that around, for example, AI use and development of unique AI solutions." says Johan Harvard.

Strong leadership is key to AI development

Evelina Anttila, partner at the venture capital company Wellstreet, describes the current situation as that startup companies with an AI focus are popping up like mushrooms. "It is an incredibly exciting time to be an early investor. The important thing that founders of companies need to think about is what problem it is that they are solving, preferably a big problem that many people have, and where AI can be part of the solution. Not all problems require AI technology."

De AI-experter Vinnova spoke with highlights the importance of visionary leadership, and that AI is a strategic issue that the entire management team and the board must understand and drive.

"When I train boards in other countries in AI, there is a much, much greater interest in the entire board and company management having a rudimentary knowledge of what it is all about. Swedish leaders need to prioritize this issue quite strongly and act now." says Göran Lindsjö.

Evelina Anttila emphasizes the importance of a visionary leadership for AI when it comes to fundamental parts of societal development. It may be to take responsibility for the changes in the labor market that many are worried about, and because it will be a democratic development, that everyone is on board. It is also about, she points out, taking responsibility for the role that AI development will play for Sweden's resilience going forward, both in terms of the climate issue and total defence. Evelina Anttila believes that we must try to use AI Act, the European AI legislation, as a help in the work, and not see it as an obstacle. "All boards, regardless of level and type of organization, should put AI on the agenda and have a plan. As part of that, AI Act will become something we will have to live with. Something positive about the regulation is that we get clear guidance on how to develop and use AI in a sustainable way."

Fredrik Weisner is area manager for Digital transformation at Vinnova. "We can state that we are a large part of Sweden that wants to see a completely different level of ambition regarding how we invest in and deal with AI. Vinnova is fully on board with that ambition and we look forward to all the ways we can help in this gathering of forces to invest forward. We think it is incredibly important." he says.

*The text above is based on a panel discussion on 19 April 2024 moderated by Fredrik Weisner, area manager Digital transformation at Vinnova. It can be seen in retrospect here below.

Vinnova and AI investments

Vinnova has been involved in AI-related project since 2011, larger specific investments since 2017 and broader investments with investments of approximately SEK 700 million per year since 2020. The work includes, among other things, the innovation program Advanced digitalisation together with Teknikföretagen and several large Swedish industrial companies and a ongoing programme on AI power gathering in municipalities and civil society, as well as many international collaborations. Vinnova was also one of the initiators of AI Sweden, which works to drive the application of AI nationally and today has around 130 partners in business and the public sector.

This article was first published on 8 May by Vinnova.

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