The Startup
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How Communities will drive the future of AI, not Governments or Corporations

Great things in life happen by accident. So has been my journey to find something that I am truly passionate about and love doing. Six months ago I started working with a group of 40–50 students coming from remote parts of India. Their mission: Build a Machine Learning product to improve solar adoption.

Challenges were huge: Lack of data, inexperienced developers with no prior work experience, building a team with people who never met each other, and a small amount of money for product development. How can one bring such a group of ‘novices’ to build anything, let alone a complicated Machine Learning product?

Despite all of the challenges, there was one thing that they had in common. They all were motivated and had the desire to build a real-world product that has a social value and can connect to the problem.

What happened over the next six months is amazing. Not only they were putting long hours to work on the project, but they started collaborating and helping each other. For example, the more experienced developers started sharing their work and helping the not so experienced developers, and the ones who are new started to generate data. Within 6 months we got results which were beyond my expectations (the article with the results).

Collaboration and not Competition

I realize this can be a new model of innovation. A model where communities can come together to solve their problems, share their data and build solutions. This is the world towards which I want to work. But is this a new idea?

The idea of collaborative work driven by the community was always there, but few new developments have happened in the meantime.

In the world of Big data and Machine Learning, data is the key. It is not a sophisticated algorithm or better team, but it’s the team with the better (and more) data that wins. The second thing that happened was that due to the flood of online courses, education, especially of emerging technologies like AI and ML, became easily accessible. Now, for anyone in any part of the world, it is very easy to start learning from websites like Udemy, Coursera. Looking back even 10–15 years ago, when I was a student I did not have that access to all this knowledge. Now, one does not have to go to MIT or Stanford or Cambridge, to get top class education. The third thing that has happened is that a lot of people are making their code open source. Thus anyone can take up open source code, and start adapting to their needs.

So below are the steps to follow for anyone who is interested in the community-driven approach:

  1. Build a community of highly motivated people who have a common vision and mission. The community should have a diverse set of experiences and skills.
  2. Bring them under a platform, can be slack.
  3. Follow best practices, processes, and tools for collaborative work (see Figure 2).
  4. Hold regular events where the community members can showcase their work.
  5. Write about the work they are doing to keep the motivation up. Everyone likes recognition.

Managing the community

Communities are quite difficult to manage and maintain. While building ThinkApps, this is what I primarily focussed on — building products with developers from over 30 countries. The best strategy is to speak in a language with common values and motivations. This is the only way to build a “tribe”[1]: a group of people who have a shared sense of meaning and connection.

Another thing that is important is someone who can glue the community together. In his book, ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’, Scott Adams talked about building diverse skills, so that whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am not the smartest guy and neither a top developer, I am not the best AI guy in the world (although have 10 years of experience), neither I am not the best marketer or the sales guy, or the best mentor, speaker or writer but I do have all of them and can bring people from diverse background, speak a language that both developers and business people understand, can mentor and motivate the developers, and can write about the work being done (student appreciate the recognition). The whole of all the above skills is greater than the sum and not many people have it.

Another skill I am trying to improve is my communication skills. The Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once said that ‘observing without evaluating is the highest form of human intelligence’. While working with students, observing without evaluating comes in handy.

Value out of the community

Solutions built by communities are almost guaranteed to be adopted. They know what problems to solve, how to get the data, and even how to build those solutions. What they need is a support, mentoring and encouragement.

A community creates empowerment, builds trust, gives access to data, generates diverse opinions, and spurs innovation.

But what happens if the created model generates economic value? How is that distributed especially where a company outsource their project to the community? The data and the code remain with the community while the trained model is being used by the company. So if there is an economic value, it makes more sense for both the community as well the company to benefit from the output.

The company’s interests are for the short term. The community’s interests are for the long term.

This approach of using community can be even bigger. While watching a documentary on some oppressive regimes, I realize that the goal of an oppressive regime (or corporation) is to control people. This is a classical top-down approach where some elites tell rest of us what to do when to do.

A community driven approach is just the opposite. It is not about control but about spurring free ideas. This is what drives true innovation and this is the place I believe the world should go and I want to be part of.

When we are in contact with our own feelings and needs, then we humans no longer make good salves and underlings” — Non-Violent Communication: A language of life by Marshall Rosenberg.

Finally, something that I heard from Petr Vitek, co-founder of Impact Hub Praha, “involving communities make things purposeful and joyful”. Can’t agree more!

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