Feature Story | 4-Jun-2024

Community of AI enthusiasts expands in Cincinnati

CincyAI for Humans hosts monthly meetups at UC Digital Futures

University of Cincinnati

Much like the rapid development of artificial intelligence, a community of AI builders, users and people who simply are curious about the technology is quickly growing in Cincinnati.

In about the span of just one month, a LinkedIn post grew into CincyAI for Humans, a group that meets monthly at the University of Cincinnati’s Digital Futures building to network, share successes and learn. CincyAI quickly became the largest such community in the Southwest Ohio region.

“All the talent, the companies, the AI projects that are happening, we’re bringing it together and sharing. I’m blown away,” said Helen Todd, who organizes the CincyAI group along with Kendra Ramirez. “This is amazing. This is in Cincinnati? This is happening here?

“Every meeting, I learn something different about amazing talent right in our backyard and how people in our community are thinking about AI.”

With rapid advancements, Atharv Shete, a fourth-year student in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said it’s vital to keep up with the newest developments.

“It is like an industrial revolution,” said Shete, who is developing an AI application that can be leveraged by the Venture Research Studio, a part of UC's Office of Innovation. “Keeping up to date is really important and giving resources to each other to stay afloat in this industry is also really important.”

Cincinnati’s AI community started to come together when Ramirez, the CEO of a digital marketing agency, posted on LinkedIn. She has used AI in her work since 2018 and had conversations with other professionals in the region about the technology.

Those conversations seemed like an inefficient process to build a network of AI enthusiasts, so in September 2023 she made a post that generated thousands of views and hundreds of comments. A mutual friend then connected Ramirez with Todd, the CEO of a social media marketing agency. Todd also hosts a podcast, Creativity Squared, that explores the intersection of AI and creativity, and has had UC’s Andrew Cullison, PhDAlejandro Lozano Robledo and Rob Richardson participate.

Ramirez and Todd met for the first time in person later that month at UC’s Digital Futures Grand Opening 2.0, where they were introduced to Kelly Cohen, PhD, a UC aerospace engineering professor. Cohen is an expert in fuzzy logic, a computer decision making process that relies on degrees of truth rather than a binary true-false dichotomy.

"Co-sponsoring the CincyAI meetup with Kendra and Helen has been very beneficial to our AI research program at Digital Futures,” Cohen said. “Our network has been extended significantly, and as a result, we have had several new and enterprising collaborations. I’m excited to work together to further grow our AI ecosystem, especially in the area of responsible and ethical AI.”

With Cohen’s assistance, Todd and Ramirez hosted their first CincyAI meetup in October 2023.

Reservations for the monthly meetings quickly reach capacity with the attendees being a mix of developers, users and the curious, though Ramirez said practically everyone is an AI user now even if they don’t recognize it.

“It’s a very collaborative and heart-centered community,” Ramirez said. “It doesn’t feel competitive. Everyone is openly sharing things, lifting each other up and supporting each other.”

During the meetings, Ramirez, Todd and featured guests share updates about AI developments. There also are sessions during which anyone can speak for up to three minutes to share their experiences and tips or ask questions.

During his first meeting, UC student Shete decided to share his experience working with BuildShip, a tool that enables users to create workflow units, connect to any tool or database and add features that improve its performance, efficiency and reliability for apps.

“The students who get up and talk are so impressive with what they share,” Todd said. “They’re also getting business cards right afterwards during the networking portion of the meeting. That’s really great to see.”

Todd and Ramirez contend that Cincinnati is a leader in AI development, particularly in responsible AI. While the field is quickly progressing, proponents of responsible AI advocate for the need for privacy and security, transparency, fairness and equity, accountability and sustainability in the field.

“The ‘move fast and break things’ mentality has broken society,” Todd said. “We’re experiencing and witnessing its fallout with hyperpolarization, teen depression and the loneliness epidemic. We need to be intentional about the tech.

“Cincinnati is leading the way with responsible AI and we need it right now more than ever,” Todd said. She likes to use the words of Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cincinnati-based startup BrankRank.AI. “Pete says we have all these good Midwest values, and we want to take those values and bake them into AI as well.”

Responsible AI will be one of the big topics during Cincy AI Week on June 11-13. The event, funded by Enterprise Technology Association and Nexigen, will be hosted by Ramirez and Todd. CincyAI for Humans is a community partner.  The event will be the largest gathering of AI professionals and enthusiasts in the Midwest.

Shete, who came to UC from his native India because of the university’s culture, co-op and computer science program, has been impressed by the growing AI community in the city. He expects AI will be a large part of his future career and will make his work more efficient.

“It is a tool that can process a lot of data,” he said. “It’s basically like the modern-day calculator. You give it data, and it spits out data, but you need to analyze what the data is.”

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