Q&A with Meetup Organiser Jaymie Thomas (AI Wales)

It’s been a while since we last posted (it’s a long story!), but continuing on with our Q&A series with local meetup organisers, this time we have Jaymie Thomas (@jaymiethomas) of AI Wales

Hi Jaymie! First of all, please introduce yourself and your businesses.

Jaymie Thomas photoHi! I run my own business called Automise, which is a software development agency specialising in building web applications and payments. We’re based in Tramshed Tech in Cardiff. I think most people on the entrepreneurial scene know me from the Cardiff Start group on Facebook, but I’m always happy to have a coffee with those I haven’t met yet.

Tell us about AI Wales. How did it come about? How many have you run so far? Who runs it alongside you?

About a year ago, I kept hearing increasing mention of machine learning in the media and – despite being in software development – knew very little about the ins-and-outs of what AI actually meant. It began with a simple tweet asking who I should speak with about machine learning, and a friend pointed me toward David Pugh, a local engineer with a strong interest in data science (who is now doing wonderful things at the ONS Data Science Campus in Newport).

We met for a chat and it was clear that Dave was more than a little further along the curve. He gave his time generously and began explaining concepts to me. It occurred to me that this was learning that could scale, that other people would also be interested in this. Dave loved the idea of establishing a meetup so we began planning. Around that time, Toby White moved his new AI company Artimus into Tramshed Tech, so the stars were clearly aligning! Dave, Toby and I set up AI Wales with the deliberate aim that it was for people to learn about AI from scratch, intending to ignite a spark within them across different topics. We now run monthly meetups thanks to the generosity of Yolk Recruitment, Tramshed Tech and Artimus.

We’ve run seven sessions to-date, which have covered a general introduction to AI, logistical regression, machine learning, the ethics and morality of AI systems, and more recently, Natural Language Processing. Each of these is only a light touch on the topic, designed to encourage interested attendees to learn and discuss more amongst themselves.

What tends to happen at one of your meetups?

We try to provide a balance of informative talks alongside practical hands-on sessions. Usually there’ll be a talk for 30-or-so minutes on the topic of the month, a short break for the obligatory pizza, then either a workshop or another talk. An important tenet for us is that everyone in the group can participate – it isn’t about an “expert speaker” broadcasting to “amateur audience,” everyone has a part to play. You may be a little further along the curve than someone just starting out, and we encourage people to help one another too.

AI Wales meetup photo
One of the AI Wales meetups (photo credit – Jaymie Thomas)

One thing I’ve noticed is even from the very beginning you’ve had large audiences (by general meetup standards!) for each of your meetups. What have you done to market the meetup? How have most people who’ve come found out about it?

I think our popularity was initially driven by the level of awareness via the media that AI is starting to be increasingly present in our daily lives. More people are now wondering how these new systems (whose original concepts are often decades old) will fit into and affect their lives. We use Meetup.com to announce and co-ordinate the events, which is great for meetup discovery and I think is responsible for most of our audience initially attending. Beyond that, it’s about trying your best to ensure the talks given are relevant, of a high quality, encouraging, and easily digestible.

What’s your favourite moment or proudest achievement so far with running the meetup?

In one of our meetups we had a discussion on morals and ethics in AI, and discussed The Trolley Problem. As this was a smaller group than normal (though still around thirty people), the members began debating points amongst themselves, which was fantastic to see. It’s easy for meetups to become broadcast-only, but we really want our members interacting, networking and shaping the future of the group. To that end, we also poll them on the topics they want to know about, and which ones they feel they have familiarity with, then try to shape our themes around those.

In our AI MiniConf in June, as part of the Wales Festival of Innovation, 14 year-old Brychan Thomas gave us a great insight into what happens when a curious teenage mind begins seeing what AI can do – he ended up building “JIM” – Justifiably Incoherent Machine – a self-learning algorithm that could generate Wikipedia entries that, whilst nonsense, read better than some press releases I’ve seen! JIM also generated some music in the style of early Chinese composers!

On the other hand, what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made (or the biggest disaster moment you’ve had) when running one of the meetups so far?

Haha, it was at our first meetup actually. We had around 50 people show up, the talks were about five minutes from finishing and we received word that our online pizza order had been cancelled! We called the store immediately and they agreed to deliver them, but only if we paid cash! Cue a dash to the nearest cashpoint and some ad-hoc discussions by the team to smooth things over with the attendees. Everyone took it in good spirits though, and it taught us a lesson in establishing a relationship with your local suppliers!

You mentioned the ‘MiniConf’ – how did that differ to one of the regular meetups?

It gave us an opportunity to showcase the group to a new set of faces, as it was held on a Saturday morning. We gave an updated introduction to AI and then broke-out into an “unconference” format, where those who’d attended and expressed an interest could give a lightning talk, demo, prompt a discussion or ask for assistance. We had three excellent talks from the unconference sessions, two of which spoke again with us at our July meetup. We were also delighted that local company We Build Bots clued us in on what their IntelAgent software does for companies too.

Has running meetups helped your business at all? Or has it been purely for fun? Has there been any other reason or goal for getting involved?

It’s definitely fun, and it’s great to meet new people. The group seems to have appeal across the breadth of society and we’re pleased to see new faces added to the regulars each month. Other than making useful contacts, there hasn’t been a direct benefit to the business, though that wasn’t the objective. I needed to know what AI meant for me, my company and our clients, and it’s certainly delivering on that front.

AI Wales meetup photo 2
Another AI Wales meetup pic (photo credit – Jaymie Thomas)

What do you think of tech meetup scene in South Wales?

My first meetup was Unified Diff, back when we were based in FoundersHub in 2013. Back then it seemed quite novel, though user groups have existed for much longer. Largely thanks to technology, meetups in general are now much more commonplace. There’s definitely a growing tech meetup scene – there’s the Google Developer Group, Cloud Native, PHP South Wales, Go, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, WordPress, (sadly-occasional) Unified Diff meetups. We’re really spoilt for choice!

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of setting up their own meetup?

Do it. You’ll be surprised how many people share your interest and will want to help you. I’m also happy to pass-on the benefit of my experiences too.

Thanks Jaymie! Follow Jaymie on Twitter: @jaymiethomas.

AI Wales’ next event is on Thursday 1st November – details & RSVP here: https://www.meetup.com/AI-Wales/events/255419512/

Join the group here: https://www.meetup.com/AI-Wales/