AI comes to Ireland’s remote Islands through Microsoft’s ‘Skill Up’ program

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AI comes to Ireland's remote Islands through Microsoft's 'Skill Up' program
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On Inishbofin, a small island off the western coast of Ireland where the population hovers around 170 and the main industries are farming, fishing and tourism, a quiet technology revolution has been taking place.

Artificial intelligence (AI), once thought to be the exclusive domain of big cities and tech hubs, is making its way to the furthest corners of rural Ireland, empowering locals with cutting-edge tools to boost their businesses and preserve their traditional crafts.

It is all part of Microsoft’s ambitious ‘Skill Up Ireland’ initiative, which aims to provide every person in Ireland with the opportunity to learn AI skills. The program has partnered with the Irish government and various organisations to deliver AI training and resources to communities across the country, leaving no one behind in the era of rapid technological advancement.

One recent beneficiary of this program is Andrew Murray, the general manager of the 22-room Doonmore Hotel on Inishbofin. A native of the island, Murray comes from a family that has lived on Inishbofin for generations, with his parents founding the hotel in 1969. Despite the remote location, Murray is eager to embrace AI as a tool to streamline his operations and save time.

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“What I’m interested in the most is the power of AI to save time for people like me,” Murray said. “Because time is the most precious thing we have, and it’s finite. There are only 24 hours in a day.”

Through an AI introduction class, Murray discovered the possibilities of tools such as Microsoft Copilot, an AI-powered assistant for everything from scheduling to data analysis to creating content. He intends to use these tools to oversee things like scheduling staff and inventory management as well as invoicing and pricing – tasks that he has normally spent hours, if not days, doing completely manually.

But Murray is not alone in his enthusiasm for AI on Inishbofin. Catherine O’Connor, a weaver who draws inspiration from the island’s natural colors and textures, has also embraced the technology. Initially wary of the AI training, O’Connor quickly became “absorbed by it” once she realised its potential to help her market her handmade scarves, table runners, and wall hangings.

“Every piece has a story behind it,” O’Connor explained. “You can get a scarf at the five-and-dime store, but a handmade scarf takes hours and hours to make. It’s a totally different level. So you have to find the right words to use.”

Now, with the help of Copilot, O’Connor can write engaging descriptions of her creations for marketing her craft on a proper e-commerce platform and help people understand her work more accurately and visualise the creation.

Another Copilot user, Inishbofin-based florist Patricia Concannon, plans to also use Copilot to make her website and Instagram captions more engaging which should prove useful in helping her reach new customers and attracting a wider audience for her floral displays.

The AI training on Inishbofin is just one element of Microsoft’s wider ‘Skill Up Ireland’ programme aimed at upskill and reskill over in Ireland, which includes Dream Space, an immersive learning experience to introduce STEM and AI skills to every one of the country’s one million students and their teachers.

Kevin Marshall, head of Learning & Skills for Microsoft Ireland, said the rapid growth in the prevalence of AI in the last few years has necessitated upskilling and reskilling programmes. He continued: “At the same time, with the explosion of generative AI in the last 18 months, there’s a real need to educate people on what this is, to show them that it’s not black magic.

The challenge, however, lies in the ever-evolving nature of AI technology. “The teaching is non-invasive, it’s collaborative,” Marshall explained. “The programs teach the basic foundations and core principles of AI. Here’s what it can do. Here are the risks and the ethical issues. Here are the opportunities. And here’s where you go play with it.”

Programmes like ‘Skill Up Ireland’ are an opportunity for rural communities like Inishbofin not to be left behind through the digital divide as AI significantly impacts industries and the way that we live and work. Audrey Murray, a felt artist and teaching assistant on the island, summed it up: “AI has to be another step, I suppose, bringing us closer to the world and bringing the world here.”

And with Microsoft’s promise of creating AI skills for all in Ireland, the remote extremities of the Emerald Isle are on the brink of being catapulted into the future, when the very latest technologies are melded with ancient skills and lifeways. Meanwhile, for the inhabitants of Inishbofin, the opportunities are yet to reveal themselves.

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