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Estonia: a robotically transformative nation


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Estonia is an enigmatic centre for pioneering robotics. As a country, it connects the dots between Scandinavia, Central Europe and what lies to the east. Estonia’s capital Tallinn is the best preserved medieval city in Northern Europe. About 50% of the country is forest. The country may only have a population of 1.3 million, but Estonia’s digital landscape is exciting great interest globally.

Estonia is proud of its “firsts”. It lays claim to being the first country to declare internet access as a human right, the first country to hold a nationwide election online, the first country in Europe to both legalise ride sharing and delivery bots, and the first country to offer e-Residency. The country helped create Skype and hosts Nato’s cyber-defence centre.

The jewel in its robotics crown is Robotex International, touted as “the biggest robotics festival on the planet.” This year it will take place November 29 – December 1, at the Estonian Fair Center in Tallinn, between. Robotex is an 18-year-old Estonian project which has become a global robotics education network, opening franchises across the world. Joining Estonia are fourteen other countries, namely Cyprus, China, Greece, Colombia, India, Iran, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Armenia, Monaco, Japan, and United States. There are over twenty other countries in the works. 

Robotex has been held on the premises of the Tallinn University of Technology since 2001, quickly outgrowing the building, so in 2016 the Estonians “started dreaming about breaking the Guinness World Record by hosting the biggest individual robotics competition the world had ever seen.” That year, they missed it by about fifty teams. However, it was still close to one thousand robots and around ten thousand people attending the event. In 2017, a new attempt was made and succeeded by attracting an audience of 27,000 people and 1,346 robots, also known as teams. It broke the previous world record by more than two hundred teams. This year they expect to feature 1,500+ robots and 35,000 people.

Pioneering work

Estonia has ambitions to be a “robotically transformative nation,” able to attract data and tech-driven startups, excelling in code writing and software development, and diving deep  into the wiring and metal of robots. The country has developed U-CAT at the Biorobotics Centre at Tallinn University of Technology (TUT), led by Professor Maarja Kruusmaa. The U-CAT robot which is a turtle-like underwater autonomous vehicle, moves with gentle fin strokes just like a real turtle, the sensors use the technology inspired by the lateral line sensors of fish.  “Biorobotics is a cocktail of computer science, automation, signal-analysis, machine learning and physics,” says Kruusmaa.

Another success story, which combines science, fashion, data and technology, is Fits.me, a virtual fitting room which would help online shoppers understand what clothes suit and fit them before they go on to physically buy the items. Fits.me was acquired by the Japanese company Rakuten, which is ranked among the top three e-commerce companies in the world.

Another pioneer is Professor Alvo Aabloo. He is a member of the research consortium which built the Mars house prototype, the, Self-deployable Habitat for Extreme Environments or SHEE. This 6-metre long and 2.4-metre wide house opens up into sections in less than two minutes and fits on a truck trailer. Besides being able to withstand inhospitable and literally out-of-this-world conditions, it can also serve as a base for catastrophe relief on earth itself. With interior space of 50 cubic meters, it can accommodate and sustain a two-person crew for up to two weeks. SHEE functions as a test-bed for terrestrial simulations of extreme environments. 

A pioneering company in Estonia is Milrem Robotics, established in 2013. Their primary focus is manufacturing unmanned ground vehicles for defence and security forces and commercial and industrial clients and rescue services. Milrem is developing an unmanned ground vehicle for military purposes that can carry up to 750 kg of payload. 

Exciting much interest is the driverless parcel delivery robots of Tallinn-based Starship Technologies was set up by Ahti Heinla, Starship's chief executive and one of the original creators of Skype and (file-sharing platform) KaZaA, and Janus Friis in 2014. They were authorised by the Estonian parliament in June to move in traffic without human assistants at speeds up to 6kph. Starship says its robot can deliver anything up to 10kg that can fit inside its delivery container such as parcels, groceries and food. 

It is designed to deliver goods on the last mile of the delivery journey within suburban, residential areas. It can deliver within a 2 mile radius, the firm says. “The robot can drive anywhere a pedestrian can walk but mainly sidewalks. It acts like a pedestrian. It merges with pedestrians, it matches pedestrian speeds,” Starship says. “The only place for the robot is on the sidewalks. It is much safer.”

Robot judge

Backing these efforts with some gusto is the Estonian government. A central figure is Ott Velsberg, Estonia's chief data officer, who is overseeing the Baltic nation's ambition to create artificial intelligence and machine learning services for its 1.3 million citizens. Velsberg, a 28-year-old graduate student writing his PhD thesis at Sweden’s Umeå University says, “We want the government to be as lean as possible.”

The Estonian government appointed Velsberg last August to run a new project to introduce AI into various ministries to streamline services offered to residents. Estonia began piloting several AI-based projects at agencies in 2017. Velsberg says Estonia has now deployed AI or machine learning in 13 places where an algorithm has replaced government workers, in applications as diverse as checking government subsidies for farmers to a machine learning system that matches their skills with employers. 

The most ambitious project to date involves Velsberg and his team designing a “robot judge” to adjudicate small claims disputes under €7,000. The government hopes the system can clear a backlog of cases for judges and court clerks. The project is in its early phases and is scheduled to start later this year with a pilot focusing on contract disputes. In concept, the two parties will upload documents and other relevant information, and the AI will issue a decision that can be appealed to a human judge. Many details are still to be worked out. Velsberg says the system might have to be adjusted after feedback from lawyers and judges.

The AI judge pilot is still in the early phases, and is being led by the Ministry of  Justice. Estonia has an AI task force in place with a working group, which in the coming weeks will present their AI strategy based on a practical approach. The project has yet to kick off, but Velsberg says they have done a pre-analysis of the AI judge project, noting it builds on a  judicial system which “is right now already half automated.”

Regarding the issue of training data for AI judges, Velsberg explains, “In the legal field, unlike any other economic or scientific area, the rules upon which a software is trained are subject to change, which may render useless the data sets used for training purposes. What do you do then? I think it’s important that the whole system itself is not based only on machine learning. We still have behind these many rules based on decision making. I keep telling to every interested party that you need to have a process; we need constant progress.”

When asked how the Government plans to deal with errors in judgments issued by AI judges, Velsberg says, “Humans always have the possibility to challenge the final decision. Everybody has the right to challenge the claim. In the end, it doesn’t really change the process. If you don’t agree with the final decision there’s no problem; it’s not the final decision.”

He sees AI tools as being applied in proceedings other than small claims. Velsberg says, “Right now, it has been discussed, that we start with payment procedures and eventually extend the application of AI rulings to proceedings with higher monetary thresholds. We’ll start with smaller cases and depending on the confidence people give us; we’ll think on applying it to cases with higher threshold.” However, “If you ask whether this system can be applied to cases elsewhere we haven’t considered it.”

Velsberg  believes the idea of a robot judge might work in Estonia partly because its 1.3 million residents already use a national ID card and are used to an online menu of services such as e-voting and digital tax filing. Government databases connect with each other through what is called the X-road, which is a domestic digital infrastructure that makes data sharing easier. Estonian residents can also check who has been accessing their information by logging into a government digital portal. He says it is important to highlight that the Government is extremely digitalized, so “we don’t have to start from scratch and we can use our existing systems.”

Transformative nation

The AI judge is part of a broader automation strategy, cutting across different functions in the Government. Velsberg explains its use in tackling unemployment, “We started using our previous experience, for example, how long people have stayed on their jobs and, with that data, we can actually provide recommendations with a 13% higher effectiveness rate rather than a recommendation a Government employee (without the data analysis) would give. For us, effectiveness means having 72% of people employed six months after the AI recommendation.”

Estonia’s effort isn’t the first to mix AI and the law, though it may be the first to give an algorithm decision-making authority. A Tallinn-based law firm, Eesti Oigusbüroo, provides free legal aid through a chatbot and generates simple legal documents to send to collection agencies. It plans to expand its “Hugo-AI” legal aid service matching clients and lawyers to Warsaw and Los Angeles by the end of the year, said CEO Artur Fjodorov.

Not that there hasn’t been problems. External experts revealed a vulnerability in Estonia's ID system in 2017 that led to some embarrassment, but it was fixed and the ID cards replaced. Government officials say the country hasn't had a major data breach or theft since it began its digital drive in the early 2000s. In 2016, more than two-thirds of Estonian adults filed government forms on the internet, almost twice the European average.

Estonian officials support the notion of an AI robot solving simple disputes, leaving more time for human judges and lawyers to solve tougher problems. This support was voiced by President Kersti Kaljulaid, who graduated from the University of Tartu in 1992 in the field of genetics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and said at a North Star AI conference in Tallinn that deploying more AI in government services “will allow us to specialize in something the machines can never do.” She added, “I want to specialize in being a warm compassionate human being. For that we need the AI to be safe, and demonstrably safe.”

Estonia sees itself as a pioneer and one of the leading countries regarding applied AI when it comes to public sector. The country has 16 AI use cases live in the public sector, and the Government has an ambitious goal of having 50 AI use cases live by 2020. Promises of efficiencies and effectiveness means the Government is extremely interested in increasing the support on these cases. AI is one part of a wider approach for the Government to have automatic services for “life event services”. An example being that in future when a child is born, the child will automatically be registered in the kindergarten waiting list and receive Government grants and benefits, without implicitly applying for them. This will eliminate paperwork, manual online systems and the human aspect of processing such decisions.

Regulating robots

Estonia is forging ahead in the regulation of robotics. Currently, the economy ministry is working on legislation to address the status of artificial intelligence in legal disputes. One proposal being considered would create the term "robot-agent", which would be somewhere between having a separate legal personality and an object that is someone else’s property. Siim Sikkut, the official in charge of the government’s IT strategy, says he sees advantages to elevating artificial intelligence to the same judicial level as natural and legal persons. The ministry is trying to build political support to press ahead with the idea. Mr Sikkut says, “If we seize this opportunity as a government, we could be one of the trail blazers.”

The user of a self-driving robot in Estonia is required to have liability insurance and the robot must be equipped with the user’s contact details. Policymakers at the European Parliament adopted a resolution in February urging the European Commission to consider legislation and potential special status for robots, such as self-driving vehicles, to establish who is liable for damages they may potentially inflict. However, Sikkut says he is not aware of any government currently preparing a robotics law outside Estonia, adding that the new rules can hopefully be implemented “within a couple of years”. Law firm Triniti, which prepared a legal analysis for the ministry on the issue, sates in its report that Estonia still has many hurdles ahead. “Giving robots personal rights and responsibilities”, the Triniti report notes, "goes against Europe’s humanist history of law.”