Quest Arts and Humanities/Mathematics Tutor Dr. Darcy Otto gives us the highlights of his recent sabbatical, and shares some thoughts on Artificial Intelligence (AI).

You were recently on a sabbatical. Where did you go, and for how long?

I went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for one year. The main purpose was to write the first draft of a book called The Promise of Quantum Computing and Artificial Intelligence, where I look at the nature of computation, and ask how breakthrough approaches in QC and AI change how we think about computation. At CMU, I got to study and discuss these ideas with some of the biggest names in the foundations of Mathematics and Computer Science.

Most people have the idea that a sabbatical is a vacation of sorts, but it is work, right?

Sabbatical is certainly work. The aim is to pursue a research agenda that would otherwise not be possible given other duties, such as teaching and university service. But it is more than that. A sabbatical allows us to model the sort of lifelong learning and exploration that we encourage in our students. To break ground on a topic that is new, we need a period of sustained study and thought. A sabbatical informs our research and teaching for years after the sabbatical ends.

Why does the subject of AI interest you?

There has been serious research into AI since the 1950s. But in the last decade, there have been several important breakthroughs in AI that have allowed the field to flourish. We can see AI emerging everywhere: driving our cars, aiding in medical diagnoses, deciding what we see in our social media feeds, categorizing images, converting voice to text, and more. I was drawn to study AI because I want to understand the principles that underpin all these developments.

Should we be worried about some sort of Terminator-type scenario?

The goal of AI is to make decisions as well as, or better than, humans. But if you look at the areas to which AI is applied, the domain is always very specific. We have an AI that plays chess, or perhaps one that drives a car.

We are a very long way from the sort of general intelligence that would give rise to the Terminator. When we get an AI that can both build flat-pack furniture and fly a helicopter, it might be time to think about where we are going.

What is the next step in the process for this book?

The next step is to finish a full draft. I will be using the Quantum Computing chapter of my book in my upcoming Computer Science class (in Fall Block 2). So my work on sabbatical has a direct application to my teaching this year.

What did you miss most about Quest while you were away?

I missed the easy way interdisciplinary makes an appearance in the intellectual discourse. While at Carnegie Mellon, I had the great privilege to spend time with philosophers, physicists, and computer scientists. But coming back and coordinating Cornerstone made me realize how much I missed discourse with friends and colleagues in other fields.

I just had a great discussion about dolphins in ancient art and modern poetry, for example. I also missed being in the classroom. It is always exciting to be able to share what I’ve learnt with students who are willing to follow a question wherever it leads.

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