I'm an AI startup founder and love hiring liberal arts grads. They give us a surprising edge.
- Barthélémy Kiss, 36, is a politics graduate running his second AI company Powder.
- He said creative thinkers from humanities backgrounds are necessary to push AI forward.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Barthélémy Kiss, a 36-year-old AI entrepreneur in Paris. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
My journey into AI started in 2015 when I co-organized the "Hello Tomorrow" startup conference in Paris. I heard a pitch that blew me away. Eric Risser, my future cofounder at Artomatix, was presenting an AI image-generation technique. This depiction of artificial intelligence — still a developing field back then — showed computers mimicking and augmenting human creativity. I was so excited and knew I needed to participate in this project.
After building Artomatix, which was acquired by Unity in 2020, I co-founded Powder in 2018, my second startup in the AI space. We've created a PC app using half a dozen AI approaches to help edit long videos for video game streamers.
Working on this startup, I've learned that people with a liberal arts background have a major edge in our industry. The liberal arts grads we've hired have a creative, human-centric approach to understanding the best applications of AI in their respective fields.
They have a hunger for constant education and a desire for self-improvement, which is essential in this space. At a core level, liberal arts disciplines hone critical thinking. We need critical thinkers to challenge the results of AI. Models can hallucinate, so you need to be able to cross-reference data.
We need creative thinkers to get the best out of AI technology
Human creativity is crucial in the AI space. AI models still require huge data sets to come up with creative solutions and don't adapt their learnings as dynamically as humans. Humans definitely have the upper hand when it comes to creativity on the spot.
In 2023, there was lots of excitement about foundational models like ChatGPT, Midjourney, and Runway. We're only just scratching the surface of what this trend will bring. Creative people can connect the dots in unexpected ways to harness this new technology in the most convincing way.
When hiring, we're looking for passion about what we do and a skillset in the intersection between gaming, video content, and AI. Candidates don't need to have AI experience. Even within our most technical research team, two members previously worked on topics adjacent to AI, but not strictly AI, like data engineering and content labeling.
Career switchers and arts grads have a home in AI
Most of Powder's staff are taking a new direction in their career when they start, simply because an application that harnesses AI is so new.
With this in mind, career switchers have a home in AI-related companies. We have a former creative in the ad industry who's now a UX designer, somebody else who was a trained architect and is now our front-end developer, and a former movie director who became a YouTuber and later our social-media manager.
When people embrace career changes, it shows they're risk-takers. These kinds of employees will thrive provided their company supports them to learn and develop on the job.
I studied political sciences, and my cofounder Stan is a fine art graduate who also studied moviemaking. He created our prototype and has always seen product design artistically. Our chief technology officer, Maryan, studied literature and macroeconomy before progressively moving into AI. His love for writing and economics helped him learn to become a great code writer. He says code is like literature: it needs to be written well and easily understood by anyone who reads it.
Many companies in the AI industry are staffed by creatives. Pierre Boulez, a composer, created the French AI music and sound company Ircam Lab. Many of its contributors and AI engineers are musicians. They have a creative foundation yet also want to solve problems with math.
Working in AI means learning on the job, no matter your background
For anyone joining the company, it's a steep learning curve. Most personal and professional development happens through on-the-job training. We encourage the use of AI at work because we're developing an AI application. Our team needs to know the codes and standards in this space.
We tell our team they can subscribe to AI services to augment their work, but we don't enforce it. Adoption should be organic, driven by a personal desire to experiment. This new breed of application is so young that to get the most out of it, we all need to be learning constantly — no matter how long we have been at the company or in the field.
While AI engineers are absolutely key, it's only through alliances between talent from liberal arts backgrounds, who can think creatively about building applications around this tech stack, that the technology will reach its full potential.
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