What is AI? Free online courses aim to get everyone up to speed

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 12 August 2021 11:40 GMT

A girl completes her online learning courses in Singapore May 20, 2021. REUTERS/Caroline Chia

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More countries are teaching their populations the basics of AI, but researchers say courses must engage critically with the technology and its uses

Is artificial intelligence going to take over the world? Is it going to steal our jobs?

Answers to these common worries and more can be found online in India and Singapore, as their governments seek to "demystify AI for people from all walks of life" with a free digital course designed by technology firm Intel.

The self-learning programme, called AI for Citizens or AI for All, provides a basic education in AI, examples of its uses, clears up common misconceptions, and touches on ethics - all in about four hours.

"The true transformational value of AI for industries and society at large is dependent on public knowledge and trust," said Shweta Khurana, a director of government partnerships at Intel Asia Pacific and Japan.

"Moving forward, the skill of being able to use AI will be foundational to almost every industry," she said.

Intel aims to expand its digital readiness courses to 30 countries and help prepare 30 million people "for current and future jobs" by 2030, she added.

In India, where AI is being deployed in crop sowing apps and in facial recognition systems in airports and vaccine centres, the course is available in nearly a dozen local languages and aims to reach 1 million citizens in the first year.

In Singapore, the programme complements other government initiatives to provide citizens with basic digital skills.

Such free courses are among the initiatives of about 60 countries to advance AI, according to the intergovernmental organisation OECD.


Finland was among the first to offer a free online introductory course on AI for anyone in the world, with a programme co-created by the University of Helsinki in 2018.

More than 700,000 people have signed up so far from about 170 countries, with women making up about 40% of participants, more than double the average for computer science courses, said the university's Sanna Reponen.

More than a quarter of participants are over 45 years old, and many had never taken an online course before, said Reponen, who is product owner of the Elements of AI course.

"The course is all about building the confidence and the vocabulary to participate in the public discussion on what we want from future technologies as a society," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Our initial - and ambitious - goal was to reach 1% of the Finnish population with Elements of AI. This proved to be easy: already, 2% of Finns have participated," she said, of the nation's 5.5 million population.

The success of the Elements of AI led the university to develop a separate free course on the ethics of AI.

"Maybe it's not too crazy to dream of catering to 1% of the global population," Reponen said, adding that they are testing a pilot with the University of Nairobi to adapt it for Kenya.

But Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow at the Monash Data Futures Institute in Australia, said governments should take a more active role in the rollout of such courses, rather than leaving it to the private sector.

"The risk with having corporations delivering these learnings is that they may not really be teaching people to engage critically with the technology, or may only frame a positive narrative around AI," he said.

"The better path would be for the government to take responsibility to create the educational model, and more importantly, engage with the public on how we want to shape the development and deployment of AI in our society."       

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org) 

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