A group of people sitting in a room for an AI event.
An AI for good hackathon. Photo by Yujie Zhou, Nov. 5, 2023.

Artificial intelligence enthusiasts — mostly young startup founders — have arrived in San Francisco over the past year, reveling in the abundance of money, information, and connections. And, they find work — lots of it.

“San Francisco can feel overwhelming at times,” said Briar Smith, 27. Since moving back to San Francisco from Waterloo, Canada, in February, he has been a founding engineer at three AI startups. “You’re in a bit of a pressure cooker, in the sense that everyone is working so much that you feel like, when you’re relaxing, you’re not really fully relaxing.” 

“That is kind of what the culture perpetuates … it’s all about moving fast and having momentum,” he said. “You have competitors, and you have investors you’re trying to impress, and you’re trying to hit certain targets so that you can raise your next round. And if you don’t hit targets, it’s going to be harder to raise your next round.”

When under the pressure of deadlines, Smith worked 60 hours a week for months — a pace he knows puts him behind others, because he watches their tweets. “A lot of my friends that are founders, they work 24/7 and have to set boundaries,” said Smith, who tries to escape to hike in Sonoma or Yosemite. 

Though, he said, “I think the best founders actually have a good work-life balance … because it keeps them in touch with the rest of themselves and the world, because founding is like a self-growth opportunity in many areas.” 

Smith is far from the only AI enthusiast who works hard but doesn’t get to play hard. 

On a grant from the Singaporean government, SzeYing Teo, 33, visited San Francisco to test a business model to connect Singapore tech talent to U.S. startups. During her two-month stay in town, she moved from the Financial District to a hacker house in Hayes Valley, attended some five AI social events every week and even organized some.

Dos Bahá, 29, a serial entrepreneur who moved here in August from Asia and a brief stint in New York City, works 60 to 70 hours per week. Two-thirds of his time is spent reading academic papers and building his interactive storytelling AI platform, GOAT.AI. The rest is spent meeting investors, interviewing new talent and networking — including winning second place in a popular hackathon. 

He indulges in his company’s two small hacker houses in SoMa, and another between the Mission and Dogpatch, which he rented at a good price. Consequently, Bahá’s time with his wife and two-year-old daughter is limited. He feels it will all be worth it, even if the AI boom fizzles in the coming years. “Worst case,” he says, “we’ll be able to create another company.”

Two people sitting at a table with laptops on them, working on AI projects.
“I took this picture in a Hayes Valley coffee shop when I first moved to San Francisco in June. It was very representative of the booming industry here,” said AI startup founder Jeff Wang. Photo by Jeff Wang, June, 2023.

Jeff Wang, a founder in his 40s who moved to San Francisco in June, now spends most of his time in a WeWork near Chinatown, perfecting his AI learning system, ClassGaga. He makes no apologies, saying, he “came here, really, for work.” 

Wang sent Mission Local a picture he took when he first moved here of the Mercury Café in Hayes Valley: Everyone in the photo was focused on their laptops. “It was very representative of the booming industry here,” he said. 

Jake McLain, 25, models himself on Steve Jobs, as does Wang. McLain, who moved here in June, just submitted the official filing for his AI art startup, Musai, earlier in October and spends almost all of his time coding. For him, the way to ride with the AI boom is all about striking a balance — but getting the balance right isn’t easy. 

Just as many of the founders who have their ideas figured out, McLain has stopped going to social events — he doesn’t have time. “It’s a weird balance between that kind of spontaneous networking and actually developing. You can’t do both at the same time,” he said. He uses the AI events as a tool to measure progress, networking when he needs feedback from other founders and engineers on what he’s built. 

McLain cautions against getting too caught up in the technology, which, he says, makes engineers “start building things just for technology’s sake.”

“You hear the phrase, ‘technology in search of a problem,’ and I think that’s definitely happening a lot in AI,” he said. 

Well-established companies like Midjourney and OpenAI made great strides in technological development — but without existing applications; they have attempted to wrap a user interface layer on top of their research models and deliver that to consumers. Nascent companies tend to follow that path, too, scrambling to find real-world use-cases for the AI models.

This has been the consensus among the newcomers and people talk about it outright when calling themselves “opportunists.”

“I think it’s a new era, a new stage, a new way of getting rich,” said Tong Yu, founder of AI companionship app DirtyCat, who was delighted to find out that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman lives in her neighborhood. “People can get rich really quickly, and in chaos. We’re in chaos right now.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. And this is why Breed is so wrong on AI rescuing our downtown economy: This new generation of tech worker is even more insulated from the actual city than the previous one. Now that everything can be delivered by underpaid gig workers, there is no reason to go out and about. Need to get somewhere? Get an underpaid Uber driver to take you there instead of MUNI. I don’t understand why SF has become the spot for this version of techie and not the peninsula, why pay our prices if you aren’t going to participate?

    (I moved here to work for Google in 2015, I’m part of the problem)

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    1. That’s it though — they participate in their bubble. That’s what they’re paying for access for. The city’s charms I’m sure are a factor for some, for others just gravy.

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  2. I am very intrigued by the AI chaos and the stories of the opportunists. Especially intrigued because I follow the bad news about the gloom and doom of the city of SF, and I hope that this may grow in positive ways that help inject change and regrowth in the parts of the city suffering the most.

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    1. I think that is very unkind to Yujie, who has done a great job of reporting on how this emerging new wave of technology is centered in SF, just like how previous innovative technologies have created prosperity and opportunity here.

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