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C'est la Z

Hosting an AI panel at Stuy

Went back to school yesterday. Specifically, I was back at Stuy running an AI panel discussion for the Stuy HS Alumni Association. I figured it's time for me to get back in the CS / CS Ed game.

Plans started a few months ago when a member of my Stuy CS family who's also in the SHSAA board asked about doing something. I was game but a little apprehensive, mostly because there have been, let's say, issues with the way the SHSAA had operated in the past. Still, this was a new board with a new staff so I figured, worth exploring.

Turns out the new Alumni Association ED is a former student of mine so that rocketed the trust level of the association way up and we were off to the races.

Setting up any panel or tech event can be tricky. If you're doing something for your own classes it's much easier - you've got a good idea as to the classes experience as well as interest in whatever event you're planning. A panel like this, not so much. I had no idea on the audience size but since it would be mostly Stuy grads along with a few Stuy students and a low cost or free event it meant that the room would be filled with nimble minds. The challenge was that those nimble minds would be all over the place with regards to tech experience. I was guessing we'd have adult tech pros and hard core CS people, students who were into CS just finding their way, adults wanting to learn more but who had no background in either CS or AI, and probably a few alumna who just wanted to show up for an alumni event. Turns out I think I got the audience range right.

How to make a panel for that? You want to be able to do something of a deep technical dive but you don't want to lose the non-techies. You also want to spend time on all sorts of societal issues - talking AI is a lot more than just tensor flow, neural nets, transformers, and LLMs.

I reached out the my StuyCS family, my alumni network for four specific individuals. Oh, if you're an AI person and part of the family and wondering why I didn't ask you - remember - this was a live NY event so all you Pittsburgh, Seattle, and California AI folks, sorry - geography made that decision.

Alphabetically, first up was Ben - he was one of my technical heavyweights. I was confident he could handle any technical curveballs from the audience. He also has worked at both large companies and has built startups so he could also give some management and entrepreneurial context. Next, Doug - strong tech background but a lot of experience as a technical manager. Been at a number of major and minor companies from small to large. I figured he would anchor the business/manager side. Eugene was third - another technical anchor to balance Ben but Eugene has more formal academic training and also spent his entire career in a single major tech company. Finally, Jamil who also brought startup and small/mid company experience but has always been big on civic tech and equity related issues.

Of course, all four overlapped. I joked that Jamil was the conscience of the panel but truthfully those societal issues were important to all of us. Likewise, all have had some managerial experience etc.

From the limited feedback I got so far, I think the mix worked. We started "defining" AI, modern AI, LLMs (in lay terms) etc. and then shifted to issues like the use of other peoples data in training, bias in AI, and of course, recommendations for the youngsters just getting started. The audience Q and A got more deeply into these issues along with future jobs issues and if it's even worth learning to code anymore.

I won't recap all the specifics but a highlight to me was how the panel painted the picture to show that while AI was new and shiny and is opening new doors with both opportunities and challenges, at the core, so many of the important issues are societal based, not technical. Ben mentioning that in a startup the big cost drivers are still things like personnel and that we're still very much in the same startup/funding/scaling model just with new tech and Jamil and others emphasizing that it's not that there are these new potential dangers with bias, for instance with AI but rather that the bias is already baked into our system and AI is the next frontier - a wake up call that we can't just sprinkle some equity sugar on AI but rather have to deal with the hard societal issues.

All in all, I think it was a terrific event.

At the end I had a chance to informally spend time with both panelists and audience and it was great to see a number of old friends. Between the panelists and audience, I had students from the class of '95 up to some of my most recent graduates.

It was a fun first event to come out of my retirement hibernation. Not sure whats next but this one was both educational and fun.

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