Campus Character: Colby Horn ’13

By Joe Flaherty


While students have probably seen Colby Horn ’13 wheeling around campus on a unicycle, he is not one to brag about his unique skill.

“I’m probably one of the newest additions to the collection of unicyclists,” said Horn. “But I have been learning and using it to drive around campus.”

Horn said the unicycle is his way of staying active to counteract the more sedentary aspects of his major.

“Because I’m a computer scientist, and I spend all day staring at computers I like doing what some people might classify as ‘extreme sports’ or things that really get my body outside of its usual range of motion,” said Horn.

Horn does martial arts, mountain biking, windsurfing, slacklining and capoeira when he is not “staring at a screen.”

“Right now I’m transitioning into Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” said Horn, a style of self-defense wrestling that he has mainly taught himself. “Everything I do is a little self-taught; it’s part of why I like computer science,” said Horn.

Horn, a computer science major and math and music double minor, grew up in southwest Vermont, where his home did not have Internet or continuous power.

“So, learning computing in my early days was very interesting — it was a lot of text and a lot of theory and not so much running things,” said Horn. “I got here as a [first-year] and people would talk about Facebook and StumbleUpon, and I was like, what? I still don’t have a Facebook page,” added Horn.

While this might seem like a disadvantage for a computer scientist, Horn thinks there may be an upside.

“In [a] cold, calculating way, I like my prospects in the job market when you’re the only computer scientist who can handle living in the middle of nowhere.”

Although Horn entered Middlebury as a first-year, he also attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock for his senior year of high school.

“If I wanted to stay there for four years I could get a Bachelor’s Degree from them,” said Horn, “but usually people go to Simon’s Rock and transfer to another school, and that’s what I did.”

Horn is interested in machine learning, which he describes as the “area of computer science under artificial intelligence that is specifically concerned with teaching computers to learn and become more clever based on their observances of certain environments.”  Horn’s thesis is related to mental interface, a process in which he gives a mental command and a computer executes it.

As a result of his focus on artificial intelligence, a unicycle is not the only extreme vehicle Horn has driven.  He spent last summer writing an artificial intelligence computer program that drives Marine supply convoy trucks as a part of doing research with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Effectively, I was giving eyes to these vehicles,” said Horn, “so that they could identify, say, concrete barriers and know to drive around them or decide which concrete barriers were the most infirm and drive through them.”

While Horn said the research was “an incredibly awesome experience,” not being able to publish his research for security reasons was disappointing to someone interested in going into academia.  Horn, a teaching assistant in the computer science department, says he may want to become a professor someday.

“I really do love to teach,” said Horn.

As a music minor, Horn’s interest in instruments is as wide-ranging as his penchant for extreme sports.

“I play a lot of instruments, but that’s not like I play a lot of instruments [well],” said Horn. “I like to experience what each instrument can do and the sound qualities that each instrument can produce.”

Horn, and is best at the saxophone and most woodwind instruments.  Horn also likes to compose electronic music and write music mathematically.

“Being someone in artificial intelligence … a subtle goal is to prove that our creations have some human qualities,” said Horn. Creativity is one human ability he has tried to give to a computer, writing programs that enable computers to recognize patterns in music and write music based on those patterns.

This power to create is what makes computer science fascinating for Horn.

“If you’re a computer scientist, you can build anything,” said Horn.  “I want to be politically correct here but you are a god inside a computer if you know how to program correctly … there’s nothing quite like the power over how these machines work and think.”