Does lived or learnt experience matter in social enterprise?

Now operating across ten London boroughs, her venture improves social capital by connecting young people with professionals that they wouldn’t …

In a now famous essay offering advice to would-be entrepreneurs, doyen of the startup world and co-founder of Y Combinator Paul Graham writes: “When searching for ideas, look in areas where you have some expertise.” This expertise, he adds, lies in “look[ing] for problems, preferably problems you have yourself”.

Is this useful advice for the social enterprise sector? This is a question that we’ve been trying to answer at Catch22, a social business that delivers public services throughout the social welfare cycle.

Since 2016, we’ve been running an incubation programme for social entrepreneurs who have what we call ‘lived or learnt experience’. This means they have direct exposure to the problems they are trying to tackle, either as a result of their own life experiences or because they’ve delivered relevant services on the frontline.

Current participants include Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, who has used his own experiences of foster care to inform the creation of Lighthouse, a new type of children’s care home that will open its doors in 2020.

Another is Rachael Box, who founded London Village Network in response to her frustrations at the lack of opportunities for young people on her Islington council estate. Now operating across ten London boroughs, her venture improves social capital by connecting young people with professionals that they wouldn’t normally meet in their day to day lives.

More opportunities needed

While we’ve backed them because we believe in their ideas, we also believe there should be more opportunities for people to solve the problems that they’ve experienced directly.

Why?

Firstly, because social entrepreneurs with lived and learnt experience can be compelling role models for their communities, where there are often few.

We’ve seen this with one of the entrepreneurs we support, Mifta Choudhury. He founded Youth Ink after spending 12 years in the criminal justice system starting at the age of 13. His charity aims to reduce reoffending rates by bringing young people, who have varying degrees of involvement in the youth justice system, together with ex-offenders, who are trained as peer supporters. Coming from the same background “helps to build trust” with the people Mifta is trying to support, he says, but also shows them “they have more options than they think”.

Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang - Lighthouse

Emmanuel Akpan-Inwang, who has used his own experiences of foster care to inform the creation of Lighthouse, speaking to practitioners who work with children across the social care sector. (Credit: Sunil Suri)

Secondly, direct experience of the problems can also mean a better understanding of what is needed. Jacob Hill wrote the business plan for what would become Offploy, an employment agency for ex-offenders, while he was in prison. Talking to people with direct experience of the challenges of securing work on release informed the design of his nine-step candidate journey, which Offploy has now used to support over 140 ex-offenders into employment.

Third, supporting new voices with different life experiences to come to the fore can also help to mitigate against the risk of social enterprises and charities working within their own echo chambers – which can result in potentially transformative ideas left off the table (a theme which Anand Giridharas explored is his polemic Winners Take All).

Jacob Hill wrote the business plan for what would become Offploy, an employment agency for ex-offenders, while he was in prison

The numbers clearly show the need for greater diversity. White males, for example, comprise over 60% of charity board trustees, while research by the Diversity Forum reveals that almost one in five social investment board directors studied at either Oxford or Cambridge university. The same research draws attention to concerns about unconscious class bias in decisions to invest: investors are more likely to back organisations whose proposals have the hallmarks of a university education.

By giving more people the agency to solve their own problems and promoting their voices within the social enterprise sector, we can challenge these entrenched ways of thinking.

Supporting entrepreneurs with lived experience

But let’s be clear: we don’t think having lived or learnt experience necessarily leads to better social enterprises. Sometimes being especially close to a problem due to your life experiences can be problematic. You might be overly wedded to a particular solution, or too conditioned or defeated by the system to think of an innovative approach.

It clearly isn’t zero sum. There is space for different motivations for – and approaches to – social entrepreneurship. But if we accept that there are benefits to encouraging people with lived and learnt experience to craft solutions to overcome problems that they’ve faced, how do we best support them?

At Catch22, our efforts are very much a work in progress. But from our work to date it’s clear there needs to be greater discussion about the lack of diversity in the social enterprise sector at all levels and the impact this has. Amol Rajan’s recent BBC documentary ‘How to Break into the Elite’ powerfully illustrates how conformity to unwritten social codes and behaviours can determine an applicant’s success within an interview process. While he focuses on professional occupations like banking, we believe the social enterprise sector suffers from many of the same problems.

There needs to be more intensive support to help social entrepreneurs to do things like submit funding applications and pitch to a room full of people. At Catch22, we provide intensive, tailored support over a period of two years for this very reason, rather than the three to six-month period many incubator and accelerator programmes offer.

We need to ensure that a social entrepreneur is not defined by their life experiences alone

And we need to ensure that a social entrepreneur is not defined by their life experiences alone, remembering that this sits alongside all their other skills and expertise. Reflecting on an uncomfortable conversation where he was indelicately probed about his own experiences of care, Lighthouse founder Emmanuel warns against tokenism, where one’s life experiences alone are “what qualifies you to sit at the table”.

Lived and learnt experience may sound like the latest buzzword – and in some senses, it is. But at a moment when people don’t feel represented by their institutions, the social enterprise sector is well-placed to offer a practical example of how to put power back in their hands – and at the same time, answer Paul Graham’s call for new startup ideas.

Header photo: Staff of Offploy. Over half of the company’s employees have convictions themselves, helping them to understand what support is most needed and to build trusting relationships. (Credit: Offploy)

Offploy was shortlisted for a NatWest SE100 Social Business Award in 2019, in the Trailblazing Newcomer category. Catch22 was listed among the SE100.

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How $1bn from Microsoft could help to mimic the brain

Now, at 34, he is the chief executive of OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab he helped create in 2015 with Elon Musk, the billionaire chief executive of …

As the waitress approached the table, Sam Altman held up his phone. That made it easier to see the dollar amount typed into an investment contract he had spent the last 30 days negotiating with Microsoft. “$1,000,000,000,” it read.

The investment from Microsoft, signed early this month and announced on Monday, signals a new direction for Altman’s research lab. In March, Altman stepped down from his daily duties as the head of Y Combinator, the startup “accelerator” that catapulted him into the Silicon Valley elite.

Now, at 34, he is the chief executive of OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab he helped create in 2015 with Elon Musk, the billionaire chief executive of the electric carmaker Tesla.

Musk left the lab last year to concentrate on his own AI ambitions at Tesla. Since then, Altman has remade OpenAI, founded as a nonprofit, into a for-profit company so it could more aggressively pursue financing. Now he has landed a marquee investor to help it chase an outrageously lofty goal.

He and his team of researchers hope to build artificial general intelligence, or AGI, a machine that can do anything the human brain can do. AGI still has a whiff of science fiction. But in their agreement, Microsoft and OpenAI discuss the possibility with the same matter-of-fact language they might apply to any other technology they hope to build, whether it’s a cloud-computing service or a new kind of robotic arm.

Sam Altman, who manages the company OpenAI, at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Washington. “My goal in running OpenAI is to successfully create broadly beneficial AGI.” Photograph: Ian C Bates/New York Times
Sam Altman, who manages the company OpenAI, at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, Washington. “My goal in running OpenAI is to successfully create broadly beneficial AGI.” Photograph: Ian C Bates/New York Times

“My goal in running OpenAI is to successfully create broadly beneficial AGI,” Altman said in a recent interview. And this partnership is the most important milestone so far on that path.”

In recent years, a small but fervent community of artificial intelligence researchers have set their sights on AGI, and they are backed by some of the wealthiest companies in the world. DeepMind, a top lab owned by Google’s parent company, says it is chasing the same goal.

Most experts believe AGI will not arrive for decades or even centuries – if it arrives at all. Even Altman admits OpenAI may never get there. But the race is on nonetheless. In a joint phone interview with Altman, Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, later compared AGI to his company’s efforts to build a quantum computer, a machine that would be exponentially faster than today’s machines.

“Whether it’s our pursuit of quantum computing or it’s a pursuit of AGI, I think you need these high-ambition North Stars,” he said.

Altman’s 100-employee company recently built a system that could beat the world’s best players at a video game called Dota 2. Just a few years ago, this kind of thing did not seem possible. Dota 2 is a game in which each player must navigate a complex, three-dimensional environment along with several other players, co-ordinating a careful balance between attack and defence. In other words, it requires old-fashioned teamwork, and that is a difficult skill for machines to master.

Computer chips

OpenAI mastered Dota 2 thanks to a mathematical technique called reinforcement learning, which allows machines to learn tasks by extreme trial and error. By playing the game over and over again, automated pieces of software, called agents, learned which strategies are successful.

The agents learned those skills over the course of several months, racking up more than 45,000 years of game play. That required enormous amounts of raw computing power. OpenAI spent millions of dollars renting access to tens of thousands of computer chips inside cloud computing services run by companies like Google and Amazon.

Eventually, Altman and his colleagues believe, they can build AGI in a similar way. If they can gather enough data to describe everything humans deal with on a daily basis – and if they have enough computing power to analyse all that data – they believe they can rebuild human intelligence.

Altman painted the deal with Microsoft as a step in this direction. As Microsoft invests in OpenAI, the tech giant will also work on building new kinds of computing systems that can help the lab analyse increasingly large amounts of information.

Satya Nadella of Microsoft

“This is about really having that tight feedback cycle between a high-ambition pursuit of AGI and what is our core business, which is building the world’s computer,” Nadella said.

That work will likely include computer chips designed specifically for training artificial intelligence systems. Like Google, Amazon and dozens of startups across the globe, Microsoft is already exploring this new kind of chip.

Most of that $1 billion, Altman said, will be spent on the computing power OpenAI needs to achieve its ambitions. And under the terms of the new contract, Microsoft will eventually become the lab’s sole source of computing power.

Nadella said Microsoft would not necessarily invest that $1 billion (€900 million) all at once. It could be doled out over the course of a decade or more. Microsoft is investing dollars that will be fed back into its own business, as OpenAI purchases computing power from the software giant, and the collaboration between the two companies could yield a wide array of technologies.

Because AGI is not yet possible, OpenAI is starting with narrower projects. It built a system recently that tries to understand natural language. The technology could feed everything from digital assistants like Alexa and Google Home to software that automatically analyses documents inside law firms, hospitals and other businesses.

The deal is also a way for these two companies to promote themselves. OpenAI needs computing power to fulfill its ambitions, but it must also attract the world’s leading researchers, which is hard to do in today’s market for talent. Microsoft is competing with Google and Amazon in cloud computing, where AI capabilities are increasingly important.

Real world

The question is how seriously we should take the idea of artificial general intelligence. Like others in the tech industry, Altman often talks as if its future is inevitable.

“I think that AGI will be the most important technological development in human history,” he said during the interview with Nadella. Altman alluded to concerns from people like Musk that AGI could spin outside our control.

“Figuring out a way to do that is going to be one of the most important societal challenges we face.”

But a game like Dota 2 is a far cry from the complexities of the real world. Artificial intelligence has improved in significant ways in recent years, thanks to many of the technologies cultivated at places like DeepMind and OpenAI.

There are systems that can recognise images, identify spoken words, and translate between languages with an accuracy that was not possible just a few years ago. But this does not mean that AGI is near or even that it is possible.

“We are no closer to AGI than we have ever been,” said Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, an influential research lab in Seattle.

Geoffrey Hinton, the Google researcher who recently won the Turing Award – often called the Nobel Prize of computing – for his contributions to artificial intelligence over the past several years, was recently asked about the race to AGI.

“It’s too big a problem,” he said. “I’d much rather focus on something where you can figure out how you might solve it.”

The other question with AGI, he added, is: Why do we need it?

– The New York Times News Service

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Microsoft is investing $1 billion in OpenAI in building Azure AI technology

Microsoft is investing $1 billion to build a platform to generate fresh AI systems and fulfill the promise of general artificial intelligence. OpenAI is …

Microsoft is investing $1 billion to build a platform to generate fresh AI systems and fulfill the promise of general artificial intelligence. OpenAI is developing new technologies.

In conjunction with Microsoft and OpenAI, new Azure AI supercomputing systems will be created and Microsoft will become OpenAI’s favorite marketing partner for new AI technologies.

AGI is being created, with the capacity to shape the course of humanity, to be the most significant technological development in human history

Sam Altman, CEO, OpenAI

Our task is to guarantee AGI technology advantages all of humankind and to create the supercomputing basis on which AGI is based, we are working with Microsoft

Sam Altman, CEO, OpenAI, further added.

It is said that they consider it essential to ensure the safe and secure deployment of AGI and the widespread use of its financial advantages.

The firms will concentrate on constructing a Computer Platform in Azure to educate and operate AI models, including hardware technologies building on supercomputer technology from Microsoft, and adhering to the shared values of ethics and trust between the two businesses.

To further expand Microsoft Azure’s ability in broad-scale AI systems, both Microsoft and OpenAI have partnered.

The firm has shown that this collaboration will support the speeding up of AI breakthroughs and enable OpenAI to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI).

AI is one of the technologies that are most transforming today and it is capable of solving many of our most urgent problems worldwide

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

The successful improvements to the Azure platform will also assist designers to create the next generation of apps based on Microsoft’s AI system. The objective is to bring OpenAI’s breakthrough technology with fresh Azure Ai supercomputing systems together.

Microsoft and OpenAI in billion dollar partnership to develop AGI

Artificial Intelligence is where all the money goes these days. Founded at the end of 2015, OpenAI is committed to advancing “digital intelligence in the …
Artificial Intelligence is where all the money goes these days. Founded at the end of 2015, OpenAI is committed to advancing “digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole”. The company started out with a capital of $1 billion, brought together by investors as Amazon, Elon Musk and his (pay) pal Peter Thiel. This month, Microsoft decided to add yet another cool billion to the capital.

The Redmond giant has teamed up with OpenAI to further extend Microsoft’s cloud computing services Azure to large-scale AI systems. According to the press releaseThe companies will focus on building a computational platform in Azure of unprecedented scale, which will train and run increasingly advanced AI models, include hardware technologies that build on Microsoft’s supercomputing technology, and adhere to the two companies’ shared principles on ethics and trust.

On the road to AGI

Today AI systems require training for handling specific problems only. However, using artificial intelligence for solving difficult real-world problems requires generalization and combining multiple technologies. What we need is Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, colaborating “with people to help solve currently intractable multidisciplinary problems, including global challenges such as climate change, more personalized healthcare and education”.

OpenAI & Azure: switch me off
OpenAI and Microsoft team up to extend Azure cloud computing services to large-scale A(G)I systems.

The CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman said, in all modesty: “The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity”.

Do we really want such an important thing to be in the hands of the people who gave us Windows and its never-ending updates that stop people from doing what they should be doing?

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Microsoft Invests $1 Billion in OpenAI’s Mission to Build Artificial General Intelligence

Since its inception in 2015, OpenAI has been chasing the lofty goal of developing artificial general intelligence (AGI) for the benefit of all. But it turns …

Since its inception in 2015, OpenAI has been chasing the lofty goal of developing artificial general intelligence (AGI) for the benefit of all. But it turns out that doesn’t come cheap, so now Microsoft will pump $1 billion into OpenAI’s effort.

As smart as today’s best AI is, it still doesn’t have the kind of general intelligence humans are blessed with. Machines have reached superhuman performance in some specific tasks, but unlike us they’re not great at mastering multiple challenges or transferring their knowledge between different jobs.

Many in Silicon Valley believe that creating AGI will lead to a step-change in the capabilities of machines and potentially even usher in a technological singularity. When it was launched in 2015 by Elon Musk and Y Combinator chairman Sam Altman, OpenAI’s goal was to ensure such AGI was ushered into the world in a safe and responsible way without the malign influence of profit-seeking.

But that always looked like a tall order when faced with stiff competition from tech giants like Google, IBM, and Amazon, all happy to pour billions into AI research. Faced with that reality, OpenAI has undergone a significant metamorphosis in the last couple of years.

Musk stepped away last year, citing conflicts of interest as his electric car company Tesla invests in self-driving technology and disagreements over the direction of the organization. Earlier this year a for-profit arm was also spun off to enable OpenAI to raise investment in its effort to keep up.

A byzantine legal structure will supposedly bind the new company to the original mission of the nonprofit. OpenAI LP is controlled by OpenAI’s board and obligated to advance the nonprofit’s charter. Returns for investors are also capped at 100 times their stake, with any additional value going to the nonprofit, though that’s a highly ambitious target that needs to be hit before any limits on profiteering would kick in.

Now the new deal with Microsoft seems to open the door to starting to commercialize some of the intellectual property OpenAI has built up, while ensuring the company has access to the huge computing resources required to do top-level AI research.

In return for its $1 billion investment Microsoft will become the “exclusive” provider of cloud computing services to OpenAI, as well as its preferred partner for commercializing new AI technologies. The two companies will also work together to build “AI supercomputing technologies” into Microsoft’s Azure cloud services.

The deal makes clear sense for both companies. Microsoft has lagged behind its competitors when it comes to AI, which is becoming an increasingly important component of the cloud services it is vying with Amazon and Google to provide.

An exclusive partnership with OpenAI effectively provides Microsoft with a ready-made research and development arm to help design AI-ready cloud hardware and new AI products. And while the investment sounds significant, CEO Satya Nadella told the New York Times it won’t all come at once, and most of it will be spent on OpenAI’s computing resources and therefore come back to Microsoft.

For OpenAI, the cost of keeping up in deep learning’s processing arms race is a major concern, and the main driver behind its decision to go for-profit. The deal with Microsoft not only provides it with cash to rent computing time, but will also give it a chance to guide the development of the tech giant’s AI hardware.

The two companies talk about the deal in tellingly different ways. An OpenAI blog post is largely focused on expounding its long-term goal of achieving AGI and explaining how the deal will make this possible, whereas a press release from Microsoft seems keen to suggest it will boost Azure’s AI offerings.

Given that the consensus among leading experts is that AGI is probably still many decades away (if it’s even feasible or desirable in the first place) it seems likely that Microsoft’s vision for the deal will be realized first.

Image Credit: Microsoft

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