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A peek inside San Francisco’s AI boom

2 weeks ago 30

In an opulent ballroom on a Saturday night, the classic pump-up anthem “Eye of the Tiger” blared as artificial intelligence enthusiasts tapped away on their keyboards. This was a hackathon — an event where participants have a set amount of time to collaborate on a project they present to the crowd — at a sprawling mansion about 30 minutes south of San Francisco.

As a professional freelance photographer, I’ve spent the past decade documenting the people and culture of Silicon Valley. Ever since OpenAI’s ChatGPT debuted in November 2022, countless entrepreneurs have been inspired to make their own generative AI tools. Now, nearly every new start-up has an AI element — technology that automates simple tasks, for example, or a chatbot that provides mental health tips.

In the past year and a half, entrepreneurs from around the world have flocked to San Francisco to be part of this AI revolution. Many start-up founders and their teams live and work together so they can focus intently on building their companies. And evenings like the AI hackathon I visited in March 2023 have become Silicon Valley’s idea of fun.

Here’s a peek inside that world.

 is focused on emerging tech, including many AI companies, and allows the companies it funds to work out of its San Francisco Fort Mason space. 
Apoorva Mahajan, center, and Mo Mahmood, right, take a break for a lightsaber battle in the hardware lab at Founders Inc., a start-up incubator in San Francisco in March 2023. At the time, Mahajan was working on a brain-computer interface device and Mahmood was working at a robotics company.
Michaela Carmein (second from right) watches demos while helping out during the HF0 Demo Day where she entertained guests by pretending to be an AI robot named “Guinevere” during the event for the start-up fellowship in San Francisco, Calf., on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. She talked to guests in character throughout the entire event. Carmein’s close friend, Emily Liu, is one of the co-founders of HF0, and she helped her friend create a memorable event with the costume and act. Demo days at other programs can often be routine events with start-ups mostly giving slide deck presentations, but the HF0 team added creative details throughout their demo day to make the event fun for guests.Michaela Carmein, second from right, dressed as an AI robot named “Guinevere,” watches entrepreneurs’ presentations from an overflow room at an April 2023 demo day for start-up founders who have completed the selective 12-week residency Hacker Fellowship Zero. Such events, which focus on founders' technical talks, can often be stale, but Carmein's act was one of several creative flourishes.
extra // organized by Cerebral Valley. The group — which shares the nickname for the San Francisco neighborhood of Hayes Valley, where many AI start-ups are based — found that venture capital firms, many of which moved to hybrid or remote work, had office space to spare
Taylor Schmidt (second from right) and other guests of the “Cerebral Valley X Blumberg AI Builders Co-Work” event work on their laptops at the office of the venture capital firm Blumberg Capital in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, March 16, 2023. The Cerebral Valley organization has been hosting regular co-working events, often at the offices of venture capital firms, where individuals building AI can come together, work, and create community with one another. Such meet-ups are a way to help with what can often be the loneliness of start-up life where founders are usually working around the clock on their companies. AI entrepreneurs, including Taylor Schmidt, second from right, who's building an AI design assistant for architects and interior designers, plug away on their laptops while attending a co-working event at the San Francisco office of a venture capital firm in March 2023. Cerebral Valley, the organization hosting the event, aims to help start-up founders escape the isolating work of building a company.

 April 2023 demo event where start-ups would present their companies... After the presentations, guests drank tea and mingled with founders.

Evan Stites-Clayton, left, and Dave Fontenot, right, co-founders of the start-up residency Hacker Fellowship Zero, look at photos that were used to entertain guests as they checked in at an April 2023 demo event. Volunteers asked attendees to identify the differences between similar-looking photos to prove they are humans, not robots.

 Hackathons are big networking opportunities, with participants frequently meeting people who go on to become co-founders, teammates, friends, even romantic partners. // Jacob Cole (center) leads a Qigong session in the backyard as a break for people competing in the hackathon during the AGI House LLM Hackathon at the “AGI House,” a hacker house in Hillsborough, California on March 25, 2023. The one-day hackathon was planned around the release of GPT-4 and drew hundreds of excited attendees. Hackathons are an opportunity for individuals to build something in a set amount of time, testing and refining their skills, but they are also social events. While coding away, people make friends and build community with one another. Jacob Cole, center, leads others in Qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of optimizing energy within the body, mind and spirit, in the AGI House backyard during a March 2023 hackathon in Hillsborough, Calif. Through Qigong, Cole, a hackathon competitor, wanted to share “the incredible feeling of not letting the energy escape, not letting the information escape.”
Kelly Peng, the CEO and co-chief technology officer of Kura Technologies, and Yosun Chang, right, use Apple Vision Pros while they prepare to present at a robot hackathon at the Hillsborough AGI House in February 2024. That night, Peng, who lives at the house, showed off a telepresence robot, shown bottom left, that she and her team built. When paired with augmented-reality glasses, the robot can allow someone to visit a place virtually.
A volunteer at the GAI Collective Summit, a meet-up event, holds up the number of his discussion group to his group knows where to gather at the co-working space Werqwise in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. The GAI Collective organizes meet-up events where AI interested individuals gather to discuss the technology of generative AI. At their summit events, attendees are given a number when they check in and these numbers are used to form discussion groups. Throughout the night, the event rotates between small group discussions and then breaking out into networking with the whole crowd. A volunteer at an AI meetup at a San Francisco co-working space in June 2023 holds up a number so his fellow discussion-group members know where to assemble. Attendees debated such questions as “What will humans always be better at than AI?” and “What fundamentally gives us, as individuals, meaning and purpose?”

 Come Code it Off” event at the office of Exa, an AI powered search engine start-up, in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, September 30, 2023. The start-up invited friends and members of the AI community to come code at their place for the night after one of the company’s teammates got ghosted on a date the weekend before. They jokingly invited people to come over and work with them instead of wasting another Saturday night being ghosted. The company offices are located in an apartment many of the teammates live in and directly above the apartment housing another start-up, Brev.Dev., which has turned the building into a gathering spot for the AI community.

Aqeel Ali, left, works on a project with the input of Kevin Baragona at the office of Exa, an AI-powered search engine start-up, in San Francisco in September 2023. The start-up — whose members live and work together in an apartment above another start-up — invited their friends to a Saturday night coding party. The vibe resembled a club plus co-working space: Electronic music played and housemates whipped up mac and cheese as they worked into the early-morning hours.

 The event was meant to foster support and inclusion for women in the male-dominated industry. // Tammie Siew, a partner of the venture capital firm Pebblebed, (left) and attendees of a “Women in AI Lunch” stand together before breaking into a mingling game during the event at Pebblebed’s office in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, February 19, 2023. The event, which gathered women working in AI for an afternoon of meeting each other, discussing their projects and exchanging contacts, was co-hosted by the organization Cerebralvalley.ai and the company Speedify.ai with help from and organizing from Siew and Pebblebed.Tammie Siew, left, a partner at the venture capital firm Pebblebed, stands to play an icebreaker game at a February 2023 networking lunch for women in AI at Pebblebed’s office in San Francisco’s Mission District. According to the World Economic Forum, only 22 percent of AI professionals globally are women.
  When asked to create an image of “The city that never sleeps with bright lights and endless entertainment,” Reibman generated a nighttime city scape while Hu’s image was a bit creepy, eliciting laughs from the crowd. // Entrepreneur Alex Reibman, of the start-up AgentOps.AI, and Jesse Hu (right) participate in a prompt battle moderated by Alessio Fanelli (center), a partner at the VC firm Decibel Partners, at the “AI World’s Fair” event hosted by Decibel and the Microsoft for Startups Founders Hub at the hub in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, June 8, 2023. The event included demos from artificial intelligence start-ups, games and the prompt battle. In prompt battles, people compete against each other on-stage using text-to-image software to produce AI generated images. The audience then votes on who created the best images. Alex Reibman, left, and Jesse Hu, right, face off in a prompt battle with venture capitalist Alessio Fanelli, center, refereeing at an AI networking event in June 2023. It was a sort of 21st-century World’s Fair, with attendees perusing a showcase of AI start-ups and then watching a prompt battle where competitors entered strings of words to get AI software to generate images.
An individual dressed as the hugging face emoji dances with attendees of the event “Open Source AI Meetup with Hugging Face CEO” during the event at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California on March 31, 2023. Almost 4,300 people RSVPed on Partiful with event organizers referring to it as “AI Woodstock” due to the massive interest in attending. Hugging Face is a company that develops tools for building applications using machine learning. AI builders were spread throughout the event giving demos of what they are working on.  An individual dressed as the “hugging face” emoji dances at an event billed as the “Woodstock of AI,” where thousands of people gathered at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco in March 2023. Earlier, the CEO of Hugging Face, a company that develops tools for building applications using machine learning, spoke about open-source AI development. AI builders demonstrated what they are working on. Later, when the crowd dissipated, there was finally room to dance.

 The goal was to use AI to devise solutions to human challenges. // Participants in the “AI For Good” Hackathon work on their laptops as well as take a break to rest during the event at the co-working space Shack15 in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, California on March 25, 2023. The hackathon, organized by Cerebral Valley and Internet Activism, featured 24 hours of coding to build projects, followed by demos. Cerebral Valley is an organization that sprung up to help organize a community around the many people moving to San Francisco to work in AI. They plan co-working days, hackathons, networking meet-ups and other events.

Participants work (and nap) at a 24-hour hackathon at a co-working space in the San Francisco Ferry Building in March 2023. The winners included a project to help prevent AI from being used for spam calls, a tool to help kids learn to read and a platform for therapists to improve mental health care. A year later, the AI boom is still going strong, with some weekends offering multiple hackathons for entrepreneurs to choose from.

About this story

To capture these photos, Laura Morton was invited into events hosted by the AGI House, Hacker Fellowship Zero, Cerebral Valley, Internet Activism, Decibel, Latent Space, the GAI Collective; the live-work offices of Exa and Brev. Dev; the offices of Blumberg Capital, Pebblebed and Founders Inc.; the co-working spaces Werqwise and SHACK15.

The photography for this article was supported by a grant from the Pierre and Alexandra Boulat Association.

Design and development by Michael Domine. Photo Editing by Monique Woo. Editing by Lisa Bonos and Karly Domb Sadof. Design editing by Betty Chavarria.

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