INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
How AIR Aims to Support Progress in a Post-Pandemic World
We talked to Marie-Renée Briseboi of AIR on how humans and AI are elevating each other and she had the following to say about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: We’ve been great, thanks for asking! We feel blessed that we were able to fully isolate ourselves and yet still maintain our pre-pandemic routine and schedule, with my spouse already being a stay-at-home dad and our home having an office space.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined AIR.
Marie-Renée Brisebois: I was definitely born with an entrepreneurial spirit! Even as a young child, I would come up with ideas, research them, commandeer resources, and recruit everyone around me to make them happen. To no one’s surprise, my entire career has since centered around driving the vision and execution of projects, from my start in a theatre production in the 90s to the last 15 years, which I spent mostly in the video game industry and technology.
I joined AIR a little over a year ago; I love that it allows me not only to contribute to all aspects of the business and work closely with the development team but also to join forces with co-founders Fabrice and Dorian, who were some of my absolute favorite colleagues for many years in previous roles.
How does AIR innovate?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: AIR built a new AI approach where humans and machines learn continuously from each other, in real-time. That allows us to tackle challenges too complex for traditional machine learning methods, such as dynamic pilot training, hybrid vehicle fleets operated by both humans and AIs, and AI-assisted crisis management, to only name a few.
We recently released Cogment, the world’s first open-source framework to provide the means to train people and AI together in multi-agent, multi-human, multi-rewards contexts. As a technology, Cogment is modular, tech-agnostic, and made for distributed deployments, which keeps it scalable, future-proof, and easy to graft onto existing systems and processes, without the need for a complete overhaul.
Ever since we initially developed Cogment for ourselves when we discovered that no solution existed to solve the problems we were facing, every project we’ve done has been built on top of it, providing first-hand feedback that in turn improved it. In that sense, we’re Cogment users first, so we continually make sure that it remains the best tool for us and all developers, AI researchers, and stakeholders, from fast prototyping to large-scale deployment and reporting.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: We’ve been lucky that our entire company was already set up to offer our team flexibility, which included remote work. That made us able to continue our activities without any transition period at all, and we’re extremely proud of how well our team has adapted to working remotely full time.
As a team that innovates, it’s paramount to feed our creativity, so our main challenge came from the loss of two things: the organic discussions that happened in the workplace and the ability to brainstorm inside a physical space, with multiple voices heard at once. We tried several online tools and have been making efforts to maintain virtual socialization to mitigate the effects, but nothing so far comes close to being in our office together.
The pandemic also impacted us on the business development side: one of the most promising industries for AIR at the beginning of 2020 was aviation, which, as you know, has been severely impacted by the pandemic. We still have ongoing discussions with key players in that sector, but as we wait for people to start traveling again, we’ve had to refocus efforts on our other target industries.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: Some decisions were extremely easy, like choosing to put our team and our community’s safety first by closing our office.
I’d say the most surprising difficulty arose in hiring. As we continued growing our team throughout the pandemic, we saw ourselves turning down impressive candidates whom we would normally have hired on the spot just months earlier. The fully-remote-work context brought to light the utmost importance of certain soft skills and traits, like communication, clarity of vision, ownership, and autonomy.
The larger emphasis on these skills has reshaped our hiring process thoroughly and made us grow more demanding, deliberate, and decisive when it comes to welcoming new members to AIR’s team. It’s a learning that will definitely carry into the post-pandemic era.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and AIR in the future?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: As it did for so many others, working exclusively from home initially blurred the line between my work and personal life, and I quickly realized that it was taking its toll on my mental health. It took work to establish clear boundaries but striking that balance created space to implement healthy daily habits and spend more quality time with my spouse and son. I even got to watch some Netflix… and rediscovered my love of chess as a result! Those positive changes are definitely here to stay.
Looking to the future, there’s so much to be excited about! I’ve been tremendously inspired by how humankind rose to the challenge of the pandemic; the way it forced us to reexamine every aspect of our lives, societies, and the world as a whole, clearly fueled a shared desire to build a better, more resilient future. And that goal is profoundly aligned with AIR, both as people and as a company, so there’s no doubt that we will thrive during the upcoming wave of progress and innovation.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: We were the first, and are still the only ones, to offer an open-source, all-in-one-place solution that can train people and AI together. When you add that Cogment supports multi-agent, multi-human, multi-rewards contexts, we are completely unique on the market with that offering.
Two of the titans of the aerospace industry appear to have recently developed similar capabilities internally. While it would be possible for their direct competition to follow suit and invest in R&D to build their own solution, it would likely be neither cost nor time-effective for them because Cogment is already here and proven.
From our inception, we knew that our most threatening competition came from the giants of AI like DeepMind and OpenAI, who have the expertise and resources to build similar applications. That is why AIR’s strategy was to be first to offer it, in open source, and to maintain that initial lead.
We’ll stay in the game by continuing to grow Cogment’s capabilities and releasing high-ROI, frictionless human-AI solutions that solve problems in a way no other technology can. We’ll keep integrating seamlessly with existing systems and remain accessible to all through open-source availability.
Your final thoughts?
Marie-Renée Brisebois: To say it’s been a difficult year would be an understatement! It’s such a relief to now see vaccines being administered, and know that people will soon be safe, able to enjoy human contact again and that we’ll return to (a new) normal soon. The resilience we’ve witnessed globally makes me confident that we’ll see true societal progress come out of that unprecedented collective experience.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the work we do at AIR will amplify the impact of forward-thinking people the world over, as we will provide them with the means to harness powerful AI that can collaborate with, support, and augment -not replace!- anyone, no matter how critical or complex the situation.
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