Annapolis Alum Explores the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

November 15, 2019 | By Tessa Wild (A23)


Jamaal Sebastian-Barnes SJC Annapolis Alumni
Jamaal Sebastian-Barnes (A10)

“There’s no shortage of people in the world who need therapeutics to help enhance the quality of their lives,” said Jamaal Sebastian-Barnes (A10), a St. John’s alumnus. For the past few months, Barnes has been working with a global healthcare company called Novartis, helping them think through how they can transform the ways in which therapies are developed.

“A lot of my work here is focused on developing the strategy capacities and talent management strategies for attracting and retaining top data science talent,” said Barnes.

Before Novartis, Barnes worked for Google, where he helped to lead the global effort to discern the ethics of artificial intelligence, focusing particularly on fairness in machine learning.

“Artificial intelligence has the opportunity to do a lot of things...make decisions faster, equip people with more information more tangibly,” said Barnes. However, with any kind of man-made system, there’s the possibility for error—especially error due to bias.

“What I did was really to help articulate what Google’s defining principles are related to artificial intelligence, and in particular looking at this question around bias and fairness in machine learning systems,” said Barnes. “How can we effectively understand how bias exists within data sets, and what can we do to improve bias in those systems?”

A good example of this bias, said Barnes, would be if someone created an algorithm that classified shoes. To create this algorithm, he’d take pictures of his own shoes, his husband’s shoes, his friends’ shoes—all the shoes within his most immediate circle. He’d feed the data into his algorithm, utilize it as its training set, and the algorithm would then learn how to identify an Oxford shoe as an Oxford shoe, a Birkenstock as a Birkenstock, and so on. However, the inherent bias in the algorithm would start to become clear if someone else began using the algorithm and it didn’t recognize high heels as a shoe, because those shoes didn’t exist within the circle of Barnes’ initial data set.

“While this is a facetious example, it’s easy to see how it could rapidly scale in terms of real human impact around a number of different domains. That was the type of work I was doing,” said Barnes. “It’s a quintessential Johnnie space to be in—it’s technology, but it’s also asking philosophical questions about what it means for machines to learn.” These were the type of questions Barnes focused on: what does it mean to be fair? What does bias mean? What is the philosophical undercurrent that defines human decision?

Barnes’ career has been a result of a culmination of many things throughout his life—including his time at St. John’s. “What I think has been most important to me and most defining for me, especially during my time at St. John’s, has always been people, and really trying to understand how to enable and connect people more effectively,” said Barnes. “Through that lens, I kind of made my way into this artificial intelligence space, in terms of thinking about how these tools can help strengthen us as individuals, and help strengthen us collectively.”

“This is what I was thinking about at Google, and more recently in my current role—how these tools can help us to quickly and insightfully figure out how to create opportunities through therapeutics for people who need them,” said Barnes.

Barnes doesn’t believe in ‘dream jobs’—instead, he focuses on his own core values. Rather than having an ultimate goal, Barnes chooses to pursue a set of circumstances that he finds fulfilling. “If there’s anything I’ve learned since graduating from St. John’s, it’s that we live in a fickle world—a volatile, uncertain, chaotic space,” said Barnes.

“I want to be in a space that allows me to think critically, that gives me the freedom and latitude to act responsibly...and to allow for myself and enable the world to live a bit more humanely,” said Barnes. “Those are the three strategic pillars and values that drive my approach to my own career, and the ways in which I look at professional opportunities.”

His time at St. John’s helped inform this way of thinking. “I was never the smartest person in the room,” said Barnes. “I understood [the benefits of] that and I appreciated it very early on in my career, and embodied that outside of St. John’s. It helped enable a sense of curiosity.” Now, Barnes intentionally hires those whom he feels are more intelligent than he is.

“I believe in the strength that comes from discourse,” said Barnes. “I trace that back directly to my experience at St. John’s. I think if I had gone to some other institution, where it was more about getting A’s and getting the right answer in the classroom, then I might be a bit more intimidated, having people so much smarter than me in those spaces...I directly attribute St. John’s to [my own] comfort with having great individuals bringing forth great ideas, regardless of what their role is, or what they technically do on paper.”