Nate Yohannes sitting on a sofa.

On the front lines of artificial intelligence

“Applying my law degree is extremely relevant. I spend a lot of time negotiating and reviewing contracts. I’m constantly looking at IP law and debating, how are we going to handle third-party IP, what is our strategy for going to market, how are we going to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?”

Nate Yohannes ’12 was in California when he found himself, through a mix-up, riding in an Uber with a Microsoft human resources executive. They got to talking. And soon after that, he was working for the company.

Good luck? Maybe. But Yohannes says it’s more about recognizing opportunities, leaning into them – “and then betting on yourself.”

Now, as director of corporate business development and strategy for Microsoft Artificial Intelligence, he leads engagements pertaining to partnerships and M&A for the engineering team that builds products involving computer vision, mixed reality and conversational AI. The role ranges widely: “finding companies to partner with and/or acquire when we have a gap in our AI offerings. I can recommend companies to invest in to our venture capital team. Our job is to go out and find ecosystem partners to work with.”

“We’re in a people business, and I believe that good energy brings effectively good things. By design I try to present a feeling of positivity and energy. I’m walking through my journey of life, and things happen that bring me to unique places both personally and professionally.

He’s in the front row watching artificial intelligence come into its own, with products such as smart cameras, facial recognition and holographic technology. One recent project involves a “mixed reality” headset called HoloLens that’s used in fields like advanced manufacturing and surgery.

His base in San Francisco is a long way from Washington, D.C., which was his aim as a UB School of Law student. But he did spend five years in the nation’s capital – as associate general counsel of the trade group Money Management Institute, and in positions in the Obama administration. He served as the senior adviser to the Head of the Office of Investments and Innovation, U.S. Small Business Administration, and on the White House’s Broadband Opportunity Council, working to increase investment in and access to broadband Internet service nationwide. Yohannes was selected to the inaugural class of the White House Economic Leadership program -- a highly selective group of presidential appointees who were trained and mentored by U.S. Cabinet members and senior ranking White House officials.

A People Business

Nate Yohannes in Times Square.

Yohannes in Times Square (Photo credit: Nate Yohannes)

It seems like he pretty much knows everyone – and that’s by design. “I spent a lot of time in law school outside the classroom, networking and engaged in the community,” Yohannes says. “We’re in a people business, and I believe that good energy brings effectively good things. By design I try to present a feeling of positivity and energy. I’m walking through my journey of life, and things happen that bring me to unique places both personally and professionally.”

So, for example, when he was at an AI conference in San Francisco, some visitors from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) asked for directions to a nearby restaurant. One of them, it turns out, was an advisor to the UAE’s Minister of Artificial Intelligence – and he invited Yohannes to Dubai to speak at their AI conference, the largest in the world. “You just never know,” Yohannes says.

The work comes with a daunting learning curve, he acknowledges, but that’s nothing new. He remembers, in his first days at the Money Management Institute, having to do a quick web search on the question, “What is a mutual fund? “The first thing is to have a growth mindset,” Yohannes says. “All of this is totally feasible – it’s just a matter of how much time and effort you want to put into it.”

But his UB School of Law training undergirds everything he does at one of the world’s biggest technology companies. “Applying my law degree is extremely relevant,” he says. “I spend a lot of time negotiating and reviewing contracts. I’m constantly looking at IP law and debating, how are we going to handle third-party IP, what is our strategy for going to market, how are we going to comply with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?

Ethics, Law, and AI

“In AI, we’re so early in the technology that often this is the first time a contract has been written that addresses it,” Yohannes says. “Everything I do is brand-new. And the space that I’m in is totally right for a J.D., because I’m also constantly faced with questions around ethics and the law. You have cameras analyzing society, devices that listen to you and analyze and try to make your life more productive. Frankly, I’m working with some of the most controversial technology in the world.”

For example, he says, facial recognition AI has proved to be less effective at recognizing women and people of color. One promising initiative would use this technology to make the airport experience less burdensome for travelers, partly by using computer vision to speed up the passengers’ experience. “But the majority of the world has pigmentation,” Yohannes says. “If you offer technology that doesn’t effectively represent most of the world, that’s just not going to cut it.” To tackle this problem, Yohannes is helping lead an initiative with the Microsoft AI Ethics team and computer vision engineers to close the accuracy gap for women and people of color. Yohannes said “Heck, as a person of color, who spends far too much time in an airport, I want to benefit from this technology too!”