/Amazon AI developer brings tech hub to Jackson

Amazon AI developer brings tech hub to Jackson

The barn, which is still large and tall, stands over a major thoroughfare in the city that is more heavily traveled than any other street. However, it has been subject to decades of deprivation despite being adjacent to Jackson State University and the city’s business district. Sephus believes North Gallatin Street, which is located along the main railroad corridor of the state that houses Jackson’s Amtrak station as well as Town Creek that runs through downtown to feed Pearl River, is the ideal spot for the city’s future vision and investment. The property was abandoned until recently like many of the other properties in the area. Sephus, 35 years old, purchased it along with 12 acres of adjacent land in September to create the “Jackson Tech District”, a block of abandoned industrial property that she is transforming into a technology district. This mix of non- and for profit space will create a resource, playground, and potential development anchor for the area. “I believe in all of the benefits of being from Jackson and being born here in Mississippi. She said that everyone who knows me knows I’m from Mississippi. “I love to boast about it and help people change their stereotypes.” Sephus, who has lived on both sides of the Atlantic and worked in tech companies all around the globe, believes that technology equity is her passion. She is a Mississippi State University computer engineering graduate and now works at Amazon to correct implicit bias in data patterns. Two years ago, she also founded The Bean Path, a Jackson non-profit dedicated to helping anyone, from small business owners to children, access the tech tools they need. This includes coding and engineering programming, “tech hours” at local libraries, grant-making, and grant-making to promote STEM growth in schools. Two of the seven buildings in the new tech hub’s tech district will be owned and operated by The Bean Path, which will also operate arts and culture programming as well as tech classes and events. Mixed-use development, including offices, housing, restaurants, and collaborative work spaces, is planned for the remaining buildings. All of these developments revolve around the goal to level the playing field and provide equal access to technology tools and dedicated space. She stated that technology is a major infrastructure and an integral part of our daily lives. It’s important to stay on top of it all. “I believe it’s important for me that I do everything I can to ensure that others like me are successful in this industry and to bridge the gap between people helping people with their daily lives.” Jackson’s classes are still online, but resources are limited and COVID-19 emotional tolls are high. This is exacerbated by longstanding health and housing inequalities. Sephus stated that she was thinking about children who may need access to the internet. Sephus explained that they should rent laptops and have access to tutors because not all parents want to tutor their kids. This type of community planning and investment in community have been lacking in large Jackson development projects. We can give them a place to go, but this is as much a community responsibility as mine. “I want everyone to be a part, I believe engaging the community is one the biggest pieces missing from that downtown area.” She is a computer engineer who focuses on machine learning. She looks for patterns, and sometimes more importantly, diverts from them, to help AI course-correct for bias. Patterns are what determine AI. This includes the ads you see on social networks, what music you listen to, and the routes that self-driving cars choose. Patterns that are meant to teach AI may be misleading or discriminatory if they do not reflect certain groups. It all depends on the dataset from which tech draws its data. Research has shown that facial recognition software is more effective for white men than it is for black faces. AI uses data from past datasets to recognize and learn from new situations. If it encounters something unfamiliar, the bias defaults towards rejecting or mis-categorizing it. AI can be biased due to the biased information it needs to learn, especially when it comes down to race, gender, and social inequity. Sephus is part of Amazon Web Services’ AI team. She helps to identify inequalities in algorithms and train them to recognize differences. Her team works to recognize and recalibrate fairness in data patterns such as facial recognition or how bank loans are granted. “Anything that is not in those patterns is an anomaly, so we’re looking into things to detect faces and even my voice. She said that if you don’t have a ‘trained your algorithms’ on voices from the South, it won’t work for people who sound similar to you. Sephus first-hand experienced the bias in bank loan algorithms over the past 18 months as she tried to get financing for the purchase of the abandoned property in downtown Jackson. She was denied and plans to make it a tech hub. “I came from Amazon and I have a successful startup acquisition. I have access capital. I don’t care how much you have. She said that banks don’t care about trends or patterns and they don’t care. She says it took the former landowner agreeing to owner financing, and Ridgeland-based Butler Snow law office committing to pro bono representation to close this deal. Sephus broke ground on the new project a year and a half after she decided to make the tech hub a reality. It will not only transform the community and its capital but also transform Jackson’s infrastructure and development to come from a community — something Farish Street has struggled with. “I’m a young Black woman. She said that she doesn’t know any other people like her who have property or are doing the same thing downtown. “I think that’s part of what it takes — someone who thinks differently and has a different background to enter and disrupt… I’m insane enough to believe we can do this.” She is originally from Atlanta and will be spending much of her time in Jackson. She hopes that more infrastructure will recognize that tech equity goes beyond the biases of technology. It also includes access to internet, such as universal high-speed internet access. The tech hub is a turning point in the area, she believes. It will result in economic development and positive impact for children who use the resources. She also hopes that the area will benefit from classes, trainings, and tutoring, which will help develop the workforce skills needed to work in the tech industry. This will also increase the area’s infrastructure and property value. Her most pressing goal is to make the barn into a safe WiFi hotspot that students can use for their virtual learning. She said that, “especially given the events this year in terms COVID and in terms the Black Lives Matter campaign, I believe the time is now.” “I want people to know that it doesn’t have to be so difficult and that I will make sure they understand how I approach it and how they can do the same. A good support system is essential. My success is due to the support system I have. I am fortunate to have more than my fair share of people supporting me. I want to be that person for my next generation.” Editor’s Note: Tray Hairston is a Mississippi Today board member and the Butler Snow attorney who assisted Sephus in closing the tech hub property.