Faculty News

Five Questions with New Computer Science Faculty Member Darcy Otto

Computer Scientist Darcy Otto studies the foundations of computation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and AI ethics and is starting as a new faculty member in the spring term. He is eager to help students discover how to think like computer scientists and how deep questions connect seemingly disparate areas of study.

Image of Darcy Otto

How did you become a Bennington College faculty member?

Darcy: Bennington was on my radar for quite some time, because one of my colleagues was a math faculty here and was lured away from Bennington for the opportunity of creating a new university called Quest. He basically baked Bennington’s DNA into Quest: the idea of a plan, interdisciplinary study... When Quest closed this year,, as has unfortunately happened to various liberal arts colleges, it just happened that Bennington was offering a position in computer science. So that's why I applied. When I went to the college and talked in depth to a lot of professors and a lot of the administration, it confirmed my impression of the school as a place that takes education very seriously. 

Bennington prides itself on being multidisciplinary. How do you expect your courses to overlap with other areas of study?

Darcy: I think one of the things a college wants to do is give your students the opportunity to explore a whole bunch of different options. And they almost certainly will not be in one discipline, because the disciplinary silos are fundamentally fictitious. For example, if you're just doing computer science, you're probably in a field that isn't purely theoretical computer science. You're looking at how your science affects other disciplines and how other disciplines use what you've learned about computer science. There are going to be ethical dimensions. There are all sorts of other philosophical questions that arise when you deal with any subject at the highest level. Math, science, English, philosophy: all these things are artificially separated. When you get into the deep questions, they all start to interconnect. I think the job of a professor is to give students a glimpse of how deep the questions really go, help them focus on a question that they want to answer, and then see how it starts to draw from a multiplicity of subjects. 

How is Bennington different, so far as you can tell right now, from other places you have taught?

Darcy: One of the primary things I was interested in, in looking for work in higher education, was the idea of being able to give students a transformative experience. If you're lecturing to a class of almost 500 students, that's just not the case. They come to your class, and they're just doing it because they have to. The model of small personalized classes where you actually know your students and where the students know you, that seminar-style inquiry is really, really important for setting students up for lifelong learning. And so that's part of what I want to do in education. I don't think you teach unless people actually learn. 

All Bennington faculty are faculty practitioners. What intellectual projects will you approach from this role?

Darcy: Part of the opportunity in teaching liberal arts is the freedom to pursue intellectual interests wherever they happen to be. And so I've been very lucky in the last decade; no one has ever told me I can't pursue a class or a line of research on whatever I thought was interesting. It basically pulled me from someone who is doing formal logic into somebody who's doing computation theory and now serious work in computer science. I've been very fortunate to be in institutions that allow me to explore intellectual ideas. The other benefit is to students. Bennington’s faculty practitioners act as a model for students in pursuing an intellectual life. 

I am looking forward to research and projects and teaching. I know that sounds weird, but that's  part of what it is to explore a subject thoroughly and to know it well. 

What will you be teaching to start?

Darcy: I'll be teaching some courses in computer science. For example, Systems 1: Hardware Architecture and Design introduces students to computer hardware, and how to think about problems like a computer scientist. Yes, there'll be programming involved, but that's secondary. As an example, a microbiologist has to know how to use a microscope to be able to do microbiology, but microbiology is not about the microscope. So too, computer science looks at these abstract ideas and how to solve problems procedurally or how to solve them computationally. I will also be teaching a course in functional programming, from both a contemporary perspective (using a modern computer language) and a historical perspective (using a logical language invented to explore the nature of computation in the 1930s).

Darcy Otto is a computer scientist who studies the foundations of computation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and AI Ethics. Otto is currently finishing his book, Five Limits: Exploring the Nature of Computation, where he discusses the limits of computation in the face of emerging technologies. Otto has taught at Quest University and in McMaster University’s prestigious Arts and Science program. His PhD is from McMaster University.