What would you do if you were replaced by a robot? Patrick Frenett ’19, a triple major in computer science, mathematics and statistics, will travel the world next year to ask that question as Amherst’s latest recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

Patrick Frenett
Frenett, a native of Reading, England, will use his fellowship to visit Estonia, Germany, Belgium, Kenya, Uganda, India and Japan, meeting with firms, researchers and policy makers on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, as well as with workers who directly face the impact of increased automation in the workplace.

Frenett has long been fascinated with artificial intelligence, and longer term, he hopes to build machine learning products and pursue a graduate degree in computer science.

Comparing automation to global climate change, he describes both as sweeping transformations to which many people give little thought.

In studying automation, his focus will be “the people whose jobs are at risk of being eliminated within the next 10 or 20 years,” he said at an anniversary event for the Watson program at Amherst last year. “Hearing what they actually have to say, their hopes and fears.”

Such people face a type of instability that touched home for him last year.

“Both my father and stepmother lost their jobs in January. The feeling of abrupt insecurity rippled through the entire family and it felt like there was a clock ticking, counting down an approach to complete financial meltdown,” he wrote in his application.

“As somebody who often gets caught up in the pure mathematics and latest developments in the field, this has troubled me. The narrative of the future of artificial intelligence will be based on the human implications as much as it will material progress. Without enough emphasis on the former, the fruits of the latter will never be fully realized,” he wrote.

At Amherst, Frenett founded the Amherst College Artificial Intelligence Club, started a student-run website for evaluating Amherst courses, hosted a campus radio show and played on the College’s rugby team.

Jeannette K. Watson established the Watson Foundation in 1961 as a charitable trust in honor of her late husband, Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. In 1968, in recognition of the Watsons’ longstanding interest in education and world affairs, their children decided that the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program should constitute a major activity of the foundation. The foundation restructured in 2015, unifying its program activities under the Watson Foundation.

Frenett is among 41 fellows for 2019, selected from 40 participating institutions, from a pool of 152 finalists. This year’s class comes from six countries and 18 states. They’ll travel to 76 countries.

More than 100 Amherst College alumni have been named Watson Fellows since the fellowship’s start in 1968.