Emerging from the bean bags and low-level lights, a young man rose to introduce his new coding project: A Google Chrome extension capable of sorting through AI-related event pages to pick out the most relevant event to each user.
As it turns out, it’s a project that could be useful: In September, dozens of different groups hosted some 75 artificial intelligence events across San Francisco, including this event at The Commons, a “college common room” a stone’s throw from the Hayes Valley Playground. The surge of peer-to-peer house parties plus Moscone mega-events needs sorting: Join us on a tour.
The venues hosting these events have unilaterally renamed sizable swaths of the city: There’s “the Arena,” AI enthusiasts’ shorthand for several central neighborhoods (the Mission, Potrero Hill, and parts of SoMa) where startups, social clubs and various hangouts devoted to artificial intelligence have proliferated in recent months. And Hayes Valley has become “Cerebral Valley,” where people in their early twenties share both business ideas and kitchen spaces.
Then there is the AI outpost at the Ferry Building: Shack15, a more buttoned-down space for founders and companies that need to secure funding to professionalize their ventures.
An incomplete list of AI event venues
Map by Kelly Waldron. Basemap from Mapbox.
This new tech wave, like waves prior, is extending its hand across San Francisco, with engineers and entrepreneurs hosting hackathons, conferences, and parties devoted to an industry embraced as San Francisco’s savior by Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists and Mayor London Breed.
In the AI industry, “San Francisco is the only place that really matters,” said Sang Han, co-founder of South Bay AI startup HAL51.AI, at September’s TechCrunch Disrupt convention in a cavernous room at Moscone West. “I think the ecosystem in San Francisco is the one that’s most conducive to creating successful companies.” Around him were hundreds of pre-seed AI startups that had traveled from Europe and Asia, many paying a minimum of $20,000 for a booth to chat with investors.
This, however, is unnecessary for founders in San Francisco. No matter how early-stage an AI startup is, the unseasoned founder can surreptitiously run into an angel investor in the neighboring seat at the next event.
The Commons, the nascent social club at at 540 Laguna St. near Linden Street — where, on a recent Thursday, the engineer spoke about his Chrome extension — is mainly a hangout for young enthusiasts.
Loose-fitting, cozy sweaters appeared to be the uniform of the lounge. Half of the participants had taken off their shoes to sit on the floor for a discussion on art and technology. Presentations were quickly overtaken by “What are you working on?” networking talk.
Optimism was in the air. Three young technophiles sitting on a forest green fabric sofa each compared the impact of AI to the Industrial Revolution, the early days of the internet and the print revolution.
Visitors here come “with the expectation that they can meet like-minded people, so that lowers the barrier to making new connections,” said R. Tyler McLaughlin, an algorithmic music producer and machine learning scientist who, with his partner, won a recent victory at the AGI Generative AI hackathon.
Ashley Herr, the event’s host and a creative technologist, said that for her, the AI boom is more than chatbots or the technology, it’s creating long-term relationships. “The people that I’m letting into my life right now, I hope they are in it for a while,” she said.
According to co-founder Patricia Mou, this basement, with its brick walls, black pipes visible from the inside and some natural light coming in through the light wall, opened a year ago and was designed as “a space for making sense of what’s going on.”
Its popularity among AI enthusiasts — as the host of hackathons, study nights devoted to “large language models,” a speaker series devoted to the philosophy of AI — is a fortunate byproduct of its location in the heart of Hayes Valley.
While The Commons appeals to the twentysomethings, there are several clubs for other age-groups and demographics: The business-focused Shack15, the anarchist maker space Noisebridge, and the artists enclave Gray Area.
Many AI engineers are new to the city, drawn by the promise of an AI renaissance, some are still hunting for vacancies in hacker houses, others have just switched from blockchain and crypto to AI. Most haven’t been in San Francisco long enough to make sense of local politics, let alone discern the streets from the avenues.
A few miles away, inside the Ferry Building, Shack15 is for business and big ideas, a contrast to the homey atmosphere at The Commons.
AI investors in smart casual suits and Patagonia vests are interspersed with techies in T-shirts. The nearly $2,000 annual membership fee makes it unsuitable for casual members. For most early-stage AI start-up founders, Shack15 remains a mystery — a place they have yearned to explore but cannot, lacking the funds or connections to get in.
In the Mission, Noisebridge, a space famous for its anarchism, has an AI group which has gathered more than 400 members. Founders, Ph.D students, AI practitioners, and laypeople, who may also show up at Shack15 or The Commons for investment, come here weekly to read the latest paper on AI together, participate in lightning talks to share the latest developments in their projects, or simply to design a quilt with AI.
At Noisebridge, there’s always a mess inside the building and a hint of dust in the air. Laptops and mouses are strewn in the corners of the room, with multiple programmers working amidst the tangled USB cables on each desk. Everything is an experiment, with countless machines set up for 3D printing and cutting metal.
“People want a place to just do things for the sake of doing things,” said TJ Melanson, founder of the AI group. “I think the prevailing culture in San Francisco is very start-up oriented. If there is a technology out there, more people are going to turn that into a business and go for VC funding.”
But last week the Wednesday AI meetup at Noisebridge stopped meeting, with Melanson announcing he needed to focus on a job search, a new robotics group, and networking “to make this meetup as interesting as possible for newcomers to the field.” Still, discussions remain active on Discord, and those same programmers will have ample opportunities to meet at other events around the city.
Also in the Mission is Gray Area, a mecca for people interested in AI arts. A mix of older and younger people fiddle with combinations of machine learning and art, games and performance in the incubators and “The World Engines Lab” here, and ultimately producing “an impressive number of projects,” said McLaughlin, a frequent visitor.
At Gray Area, seventy somethings often mingle with others in the dark room to share projectors or offer tips. While many are just doing art or playing with code part-time, the incubator offers a notable opportunity to apply the latest AI technology to making art.
And though the venues are diverse and the crowds varied, from aging artists to budding entrepreneurs, they all share one thing: They are enamored with the promise of artificial intelligence.
“Whenever I hear about somebody who’s thinking [about AI] in a new angle,” said Sam Gorman, an AI software developer, “that’s when I get most excited.”