Nate Yohannes ’07 works to build ethics into pioneering technology.
By Kris Dreessen
Nate Yohannes ’07 is in the room and at the table where tomorrow’s technology is happening — ensuring that it will empower everyone, and not become an instrument the powerful use to exploit others or leave them behind. How he got there is a classic American immigrant tale that Alexander Hamilton might relish.
Yohannes’s father was an Eritrean fighter in a civil war against an oppressive Ethiopian government. At 17, he stepped on a landmine and lost an eye, and after years in a refugee camp in Sudan, he emigrated with his wife and family to the United States.
Yohannes said his family’s experience imbued him with an abiding set of “North Star” principles: to make sure all perspectives, especially those of the have-nots, are represented and heard; to appreciate all that America offers; and to strive to help less-privileged people gain access to this land of opportunity.
Yohannes studied history at Geneseo and went to the University of Buffalo School of Law to become a human rights and immigration attorney. But instead of becoming a defender, he thought he could do more as an empowerer.
Yohannes took a job as vice president and general counsel at the Money Management Institute, a group representing the wealth management industry, where he strove to leverage his access to the world’s leading finance executives to open opportunities for women and underrepresented people. That work led to his appointment by President Barack Obama as senior advisor at the U.S. Small Business Administration, which managed $29 billion in investment capital for business and research and development, and as a member of the White House Broadband Council, which sought to expand internet access to rural and underserved communities. A chance encounter on a shared Uber ride with a human resources director at Microsoft eventually brought Yohannes to the tech firm, where he is director of technology and strategy to the chief technology officer at Microsoft, focusing on artificial intelligence.
“Artificial intelligence is perhaps the largest transition in human history,” Yohannes says. Computers collect information and process it to make conclusions. Machines now can “reason” — not unlike the way human brains do. “AI is now embedded in everything we do, from Zoom calls to your coffee machine.”
But machines are not embedded with hearts and souls. So technology, purposely or inadvertently, can do harm, he says. When Facebook creators devised their social network, they didn’t foresee how one day other nations could use it to influence U.S. elections and destabilize democratic institutions. Designers of A.I. facial recognition software — which can be used to deter crime and speed airport lines — must consider that it could also be used to surveil and discriminate against oppressed groups. Or worse, that the software would spit out false identifications for darker skin tone — because the designers of their A.I. algorithms didn’t close the gap with accuracy of these darker faces.
At Microsoft, Yohannes supports efforts to infuse ethics right into the design stage of new products. “We ensure that diverse viewpoints are expressed and we’re sensitive to bias,” Yohannes says. “We apply mindful thinking, imagine scenarios of how the technology might be used, and try hard to prevent unintended consequences.”
Such proactive thinking can also lead to products that benefit more people and society in general: virtual reality devices that can efficiently train workers, teach languages and enhance medical treatments, for example. The big idea is to “democratize technology,” Yohannes said — for the even bigger “North Star” idea of expanding American Dream-like opportunity to everyone around the globe.