Launching a newsletter about artificial intelligence for the people: Synthetic Work
Alessandro Perilli wants to make AI more approachable for non-technical people
Artificial intelligence (AI) has exploded into our lives recently, most notable with the rise of ChatGPT. And as is always the way with new tech, overnight various people pop up on the internet claiming to be gurus and experts in the field. But they can’t hold a candle to Alessandro Perill’s experience. We spoke to him to learn more.
“During the last nine years, I've been an executive in one of the biggest technology vendors on the market,” Alessandro begins. “In the last year of those nine, I was dedicated to launching the biggest artificial intelligence (AI) project they ever launched, working side-by-side with the former CTO of IBM Watson, the super intelligence unit.”
That experience, leading a team of machine learning engineers, convinced him that ChatGPT and similar platforms are the start of a revolution unlike any other. “In my 23-year career, I've seen many technology waves. There are a few things that have really significantly impacted the market and the way we do business: one of them is cloud computing but nothing has ever come close to what we're seeing today with generative AI,” he adds.
Alessandro has been focused on artificial intelligence for a decade, but what he has seen in the last five years, around generative AI, convinced him that this is the start of a paradigm shift the likes of which we may never have seen before. Generative AI is an application of artificial intelligence and more specifically, of machine learning. “It generates synthetic content, which can be text, so the kinds of answers you get from ChatGPT or the new GPT-4, or it can be an image, like the images that you generate with Stable Diffusion or Midjourney, or DALL-E,” Alessandro explains.
He mentions that the above platforms are the ones that have triggered “all the commotion that we're seeing in the world” but artificial intelligence can go way beyond text and image, generating synthetic outputs like music through projects like Riffusion. “There are other applications from poetry, to photography, to classical music, to theater plays; you name it, it’s possible!” he says.
“Video is exploding as we speak: generative AI is able to generate, from a single description or ‘prompt’, almost every output that a human being is capable of producing today – unless it's a physical thing in the real world. We’re not there yet, but we might get there.”
“I felt the need to help people, who are not technical, to prepare them for what's coming – to alert them and to make them feel that the technology, which might be unsettling, is actually exciting,” he says.
A wealth of knowledge
Alessandro has technical expertise on cybersecurity, virtualization, cloud computing, automation and enterprise management technologies. “Because I do business and product strategy, my job is that of finding and understanding future technologies that will have a big impact, not just in terms of market opportunity, but in terms of how the life of the users will be impacted,” he tells me.
Alessandro on stage at OpenStack community event in Silicon Valley
He has looked into Web3 technologies like Ethereum (a type of blockchain), quantum computing, and human body enhancement technologies such as neural interfaces. “Seven years ago, when we started to reach a point of maturity with modern AI like machine learning, I realized that it was time for me to fully dedicate my attention to this.”
He shifted his attention and retrained to focus completely on AI. During this journey, he had to consume multiple resources to educate himself, including books, newsletters, websites and social media. “I had to follow lots of people on Twitter or LinkedIn; they were experts way before I was and I have a big debt towards those people. I learned a lot from all the people who shared their knowledge – for free – over the internet.”
AI for the people
During his education, Alessandro noticed a gap in the market. “There were technical resources for technical people: academic papers to understand the latest AI models and the math behind them, prototypes of all sorts, and complicated proof-of-concept tools that only technical people and AI enthusiasts could understand or use. But there was nothing for the people that work in offices in all the different businesses out there, from accounting, finance, marketing, sales, PR to content creation,” he recalls.
“These people are the end users of all technology, not just AI, and they didn’t have anything to rely on to help them understand this AI thing. That is okay as long as the technology is still highly technical and remains only in obscure applications.” This might include computer vision that may end up being used only in self-driving cars, and so regular end users don't really need to know the details of it.
“But when I started to see that generative AI was being used in hundreds, soon to be thousands, of applications that end users touch every day, from image generation for a PowerPoint presentation to generation of a marketing pitch for a client, I realized that all these people did not have a resource to understand what was going on.”
Alessandro notes that generative AI will have a material impact on jobs – job availability, salaries, distribution around the world and across industries. “I felt that the end users, the ‘non-tech’ people of the world, need a resource to better understand what's happening to them and how they can take advantage of AI – rather than being terrified by it.”
Alessandro elaborates that the style of his content, not just the topic, was significant to him. “People may be scared or intimidated of AI not only because they feel it threatens their jobs but because it's a very technical topic. To counter this, I decided to write Synthetic Work in a humorous, lightweight style which, hopefully, makes the topic more approachable.
He agrees that AI impacting our jobs and the way we work is a very serious matter – “possibly the most serious of our time” – but he says that doesn't mean that we have to talk about it in a serious way. “We can put the jargon aside, have a laugh about it, and let everybody understand and educate themselves without feeling inadequate. That's what I'm trying to do with Synthetic Work.” It was time for Alessandro to start formally sharing his own expertise with the world, in an informed yet friendly way.
Twenty years ago, Alessandro started another media project, named virtualization.info, also about emerging technology – in this case, virtualization and virtual machines. “It was something that nobody was talking about at that time so I created a media project with the intent of collecting the information that was scattered across the web in a sparse way.”
A screengrab of the original virtualization.info website
He collected everything on a website in a nascent ‘blog’ format. This blog eventually became the number one resource in the world for information about virtualization technology, which has become a multi-billion dollar market. “I ended up leaving that project at the point where it had something like 7 million visitors per year, which is not a huge number by today's standards, but you have to think that this was the year 2000!” he smiles.
“This was a single-man project where the ‘man’ was a kid with almost no experience. That experience 20 years ago gave me the confidence that I have enough information about how to start a media project, how to scale it, and how to grow it.”
So why a newsletter? Why not social media or other revenue models? Alessandro continues: “I am quite dissatisfied – for a lack of a more blunt word! – with how the algorithms surface content on social media networks. I use LinkedIn and Twitter on a daily basis. I have a reasonable audience: something like 20,000 people follow me. But when I publish something, barely anybody sees it; it’s maybe in the hundreds.
“The reason is the way algorithms work: they promote and boost particular content which I am not interested in publishing. They penalize content and they transform the chronological order of how you publish things.”
Alessandro adds that the people who follow you don't get to decide what they see and don’t necessarily see your content, even if they expressed a desire to do so (by following you in the first place). “You as a creator have no power in having your message come across when you want it to. Over the years this has become worse and that was really frustrating. I needed to find a way to recover my direct relationship with my audience.”
Alessandro on stage at the Automate event in Madrid
“I've been publishing content about AI for some time,” he continues. “The amount of views that the content gets is ridiculously low, despite the number of people I’m connected to: perhaps hundreds, if I'm lucky. But then when I publish a post about leaving my former company, 20,000 people see the post. How is that possible?! The algorithm, especially on LinkedIn, promotes content that is on the humanistic side; things about teamwork, confidence and self-help. LinkedIn keeps pushing that and that pushes more technical content down the timeline.”
One day, Alessandro did a survey and asked his followers what content they would most like to see from him. One of the options was AI and the large majority of respondents chose it. He realized that the people who follow him do want to see the AI content he’s publishing, but the algorithm is obscuring or penalizing that content. “My followers don't get a chance to see this content. This is not okay,” he says. “I needed to regain control.” So Alessandro made the decision to start a newsletter.
Reducing friction to build a community
Alessandro has taken two key learnings from his previous job, both of which are about making your users/readers feel as welcome and valued as possible. “For nine years during my past job, I have been talking about the concept of frictionless IT: to guarantee optimal customer satisfaction and to maximize adoption, as a technology provider or information provider, you need to reduce the friction in consuming what you offer as much as possible,” he tells me.
Going to a website on a weekly basis is a kind of friction because you need to remember to do that when you’re busy and you have another million things to distract you.” He notes that going to a website isn’t particularly hard to do, but you are still fighting for people’s attention. “I hope that the newsletter – having this information coming into your inbox – reduces the friction of consuming content.”
Alessandro knows that building a community is "one of the hardest jobs in the world"
Alessandro’s second learning is equally important to ensuring his readers get as much enjoyment as possible out of the content: “I hope that I'll get to a point where there is no need for me to use traditional advertising: the newsletter will be economically sustainable and I won't have to resort to the ugly and irrelevant ads that are plastered across the internet. Seth Godin, the god of marketing, says that advertising just gets in the way of the content you actually want to consume.”
It sounds like Alessandro has his readers firmly in mind. "One of the things I'm trying to do is create a community, which is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I know firsthand how exceptionally hard it is to build a community and have that community thrive,” he concludes. Launching a newsletter with no ads, minimal friction to consuming content and no social media throttling, seems like a really good place to start.
More information on Synthetic Work
Read more about Alessandro Perilli and his Synthetic Work newsletter at synthetic.work.
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