Spotlight: Jesse Shanahan

The Ethicist Spotlight highlights people who are doing some of the most important work in our field. We'll get an insight into their career paths, learn what they are working on and understand their thoughts on the future of tech ethics.



Who are you and what do you do?


My name is Jesse Shanahan, and I'm a machine learning developer at Peltarion, a Swedish start-up focused on democratizing AI. I'm the founder of our AI Ethics group, and I'm working to start a mentoring initiative aimed at improving support and retention for early career technologists. Outside of work, I am focused on providing free, accessible education and outreach to the broader AI community.



What inspired you to get involved in technology ethics?


Even as far back as secondary school, I have always been involved with social justice and advocacy work. In graduate school, I co-founded the American Astronomical Society's Working Group on Accessibility and Disability, and when I entered industry work, I was the Social Good Lead for a large company's Women in Data Science group. As I've moved through different roles in my career, I've always had a focus on ethics and on the humanitarian applications of science and technology. So, when I began to work in data science and machine learning, devoting myself to AI ethics specifically felt like a natural extension of my previous activism.


Having company values doesn't mean very much unless those values are put into practice through action. I've experienced quite a bit of "ethics-washing" in my career, and so one of the critical missions of our ethics group is to ensure we are creating useful tools, features, and educational resources that can result in actual impact.

You recently successfully pitched to your workplace to start an AI ethics committee…


- What made you think your pitch would be successful?


I consider myself incredibly lucky to work at a company that is very vocally committed to ethics; whenever I've raised concerns, I've felt they were taken seriously. This created an environment where I knew I could argue for change successfully.

- What was in your pitch?


There were three main arguments in my proposal: business, competitive market, and core values. Our users have been asking for explainability, improved transparency, and for more tools to ethically evaluate AI models, so having a dedicated ethics group makes for smart business. Our competitors are also distinguishing themselves through thought leadership and product features related to ethics, so I argued it was a smart competitive decision as well. And finally, (and in my opinion, most importantly), it is the right thing to do. Having company values doesn't mean very much unless those values are put into practice through action. I've experienced quite a bit of "ethics-washing" in my career, and so one of the critical missions of our ethics group is to ensure we are creating useful tools, features, and educational resources that can result in actual impact.

- Any advice to other technologists?


Ethics and advocacy work is frequently relegated to a lower priority and only able to be done in your spare time or once all of the "more important" work has been done. It's valuable and important, but it's also really easy to get burned out. Make sure you are putting your own health and wellbeing first!


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What are your plans for the near term?


At work, I'm going to continue to build on the success of the ethics group proposal - I don't want to lose momentum! I'm incredibly excited for what we can accomplish, and I truly believe that it can make a meaningful difference for our users. Outside of work, I plan on expanding my collection of ethics resources, streaming machine learning education, and hopefully, having some time to take my dogs for long walks in the beautiful Swedish countryside!



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You can follow Jesse Shanahan on Twitter here.

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