How to learn about ML/AI if you don’t have tech skills

Art by AI

I’m a liberal arts grad. I love words and language. I teach soft skills. Qualitative data is my jam. I’m also obsessed with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI).

In 2015 I tumbled down the AI rabbit hole after discovering a long read on the fabulous site Wait But Why. The site explains complex ideas paired with hilarious stick figures. The two part series on AI, The Artificial Intelligence Revolution, was my gateway article to the world of AI, and later ML as part of AI.

So far my self-directed learning journey has only included reading about AI and writing about its affect on hiring and the future of work. I can’t code in Python (with zero plans to do anything with R). My data background includes data analytics, cleaning data, and putting it into Tableau but nothing close to data scientist. I also have no interest in going that far professionally. As a non-tech person trying to access ML/AI, it’s been a challenge to figure out where I fit in. I’ve uncharacteristically avoided meetup groups or conferences on the subject since I don’t have the tech skills.

Not me.

Last month I changed that. I got tired of reading. I wanted idea exchanges. So I attended a ML/Al unconference in PDX. And hot damn I found my people!

An unconference is the opposite of the standard conference setup. Instead of corporate-sponsored keynotes paired with bland chicken and an abundance of shy speakers who read PowerPoints, the participants chose the content. We pitched and voted on what they wanted to talk about. The result was facilitated conversations about subjects we were curious about and a format that flowed. It was the ideal setup for idea exchange and learning. If you’re conference weary an unconference will restore your faith in professional development.

Many people at the unconference were data scientists or computer scientists, and some working on ML projects. A few were students or job seekers. I met one other person who is like me, a communications expert without a technical background who works for a machine learning platform, BigML (and they’re doing rad stuff).

In our sessions we covered a roving range of topics about ML/AI: novel data sets, making AI more accessible to the masses, establishing trust with users, data security, AI decision making re: self-driving cars and the Arizona accident, becoming a data scientist and machine learning engineer, the future of companies and jobs (my pitch!), learning ML/AI as a new person (do you learn the math, the code, or find a project first? plenty of debate on this!), and plenty more side conversations that spilled out of the main sessions.

After years of consuming content about ML/AI I was thrilled to have in-depth discussions about it. (sidenote: the majority of my professional network and peer network are not tech people – their eyes glaze over a bit when I start talking about it.)

As an non-tech outsider it’s a bit intimidating to participate in such a cutting-edge tech space. I think ML/AI people forget that at times. One of the guys I met at the conference noted that when you’re an expert it’s hard to remember how hard it is for others to start in your field. I’ll add that this goes double if you’re in a quant and code heavy field like machine learning. Luckily most everyone at the unconference made it easy to participate (as did the unconference format).

My main takeaway though is that you don’t need to be a software engineer, data science expert, or code wizard to understand ML/AI.

So for all the people who are curious about ML/AI but don’t know how to start engaging in these communities, here’s how. 

Learn the basics: Know the difference between machine learning and AI; understand the difference between Artificial Narrow Intelligence, Artificial General Intelligence, and Artificial Super Intelligence; understand the basics of data science. There are no shortage of intro articles and videos on the subject (two examples below).

Here’s a helpful Quora answer about the differences between a data scientist and a machine learning engineer. 

Prior to the uconference I was slightly worried I’d be left out of the conversation if it turned to technical. I prepared by returning to a set a YouTube videos I’d skimmed a while back: Fun and Easy Machine Learning. The YouTube list animates over 15 models to better understand machine learning.

Ignore the math and coding right now: Unless you want to become a data scientist or machine learning engineer, ignore it. You don’t need it to understand the basics or to explore products or impacts of ML/AI. For example, the Fun and Easy Machine Learning series sometimes dives into the math behind the models. Treat it as you would a foreign language; when you don’t the meaning keep moving forward and focus on what you do understand. Fill in the blanks later.

Read everything about ML/AI in the area you’re interested in. ML/AI for non tech people is a huge field. So narrow it down. Start with general articles about artificial intelligence and learn about it’s expected impact. The World Economic Forum has good articles with a global perspective. For business impacts, check out this history of ML/AI technology by industry/verticals. Then head over to CB Insights to study ML/AI companies (and subscribe to their newsletter as they’re cutting edge everything). Then pick an industry that interests you. Either one that you work in or one that you want to work in. Read everything you can about how machine learning is affecting that industry (it’s affecting all of them – right now finance, healthcare, and insurance are some of the industries talked about the most.) Explore products and platforms in that industry that use ML/AI. Read case studies. I study the future of work. So I read everything I can about ML/AI and it’s affect on workers and organizations: McKinsey, AXIOS, MIT, plus I play with HR Tech.

Avoid the hype. It’s easy to get caught up in the shiny promised of AI. Instead, pay attention to counter narratives, often published outside of the tech reporting ecosystem. Find the counter narrative about AI in your field. I read the amazing research and work by Audrey Waters at Hack Education for a counter narrative to AI edtech hype. Explore bias in ML/AI. Understand how AI isn’t neutral and that gender and race bias is coded into AI systems. Weapons of Math Destruction is an excellent book (and 99% Design has a good podcast on it). We need diverse perspectives and people in ML/AI fields to fight these bias, and non-technical people are part of that fight. 

Go to an event and talk to people: This is the intimidating part. But get over it, embrace the awkwardness, and commit to asking curious questions. Remind yourself of the things that you know. Write down the things that you want to learn. Talk to people until you get the answers to your questions. Ask people how they got into their work, what impact they’re having, and how they’d explain their work to a non tech person. Tell them you’re curious. Some people will just talk at you. Others will teach you. Keep in touch with the people who teach you and simply move on from the ones who talk at you.

Get a project: This builds on not worrying about the math and coding. Instead, get a project. What problem do you want to solve? What problem does your organization need to solve? What data is available? What data is missing? How could ML/AI solve your problem? Starting there will help you lead you in the right direction. You might not have an answer right away. That’s ok. It make take a while to solve it. But that’s the point. You’re learning. Ambiguity is part of the process. So ask around your workplace. Visit the data science or computer science team in your organization (assuming you have one). Find a data scientist in your network or at ML/AI events and ask them how they’d solve your problem. Ask them to break it down. Ask a computer science student what they think.

Start with curiosity, ignore the part about not having a technical background, and see where it takes you.