When he founded Rensselaer for Ethics in Science, Engineering, and Technology (RESET), Jacob Kaplan could not have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic. But as he completed his senior spring semester at home, Kaplan reflected that concerns that have grown out of the crisis — contact tracing, workplace monitoring, and misinformation are a few examples — have roots in the same discussions the group was created to tackle.
“There’s no democratic consensus when it comes to how these technologies are developed and how they get used, and we’re seeing the results of it,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan, a native of Long Beach, New York, arrived at Rensselaer as a physics major, but quickly found himself paying more attention to his introductory computer science class. He switched majors early on and immediately saw the connections between the technology he was learning about in computer science and the humanities. “They’re so intertwined, I never really saw a separation,” he said.
While Kaplan was learning about — and increasingly concerned by — issues such as bias in machine learning algorithms, he increasingly felt like they were not being adequately explored. “There was no discussion about it on off days, no discussions about it within the group of computer science majors that I was spending time with,” he said. “The only place that I was able to talk about it was an ethics course that I was taking at the time.”
In the summer of his junior year, Kaplan proposed a discussion group on Reddit. The response was “immediate and pretty overwhelming,” and RESET was born. It serves as a forum for discussion, raising awareness about salient issues, and helps students organize campaigns for change. As he prepares to graduate, Kaplan hopes the group will continue
His senior year also opened an opportunity for him to weave the humanities back into his coursework as he filled his schedule with philosophy courses. He will graduate with a dual undergraduate degree in computer science and philosophy.
Kaplan plans to begin a software engineering job in Baltimore. And he intends to continue exploring the ethical questions that spurred him to found RESET.