Benjamin Jantzen, an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has won a 2015 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award to study how to enable machines to carry out scientific research on their own.

The CAREER Award is one of the NSF’s most prestigious, providing multiyear support for especially promising junior faculty members.

Jantzen’s project is at the intersection of philosophy, computing, and scientific discovery. It addresses a perennial challenge in scientific research: Of all the variables related to a given phenomenon, which ones are relevant to discovering the scientific laws behind the phenomenon?

The project’s goal is to create a robot scientist by developing computer algorithms — step-by-step procedures for solving problems — that can automatically choose the variables to be considered. Jantzen calls his approach the Dynamical Kinds Theory.

“The challenge is how to get machines to carry out novel and interesting scientific research on their own,” Jantzen said. “I have developed a solution to this philosophical problem, and my CAREER project will allow me to test that solution by developing some radically new programs for automated scientific discovery.”

These programs will be able to choose new properties or scientific variables appropriate for investigating a particular phenomenon or system of interest, Jantzen said. They might be applied to problems such as discovering which ecological properties are useful to conservationists trying to solve a particular environmental challenge.

Jantzen will lead two summer initiatives as part of his research. A weeklong session, Philosophy and Physical Computing, is targeted for graduate students from around the country in philosophy and computer science.

“The idea is to help foster a community of researchers with the skills and understanding to exploit the overlap between the philosophy of science and machine learning,” said Jantzen.

“Computer science students will learn how philosophical investigation can be applied to scientific methodology,” Jantzen said. “Philosophy students will acquire the basic programming skills to apply and test their theories in the real world.”

The graduate students in turn will help with a workshop for middle school children. Titled Robot Scientist, the two-day event will be hosted at the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke.

“Kids will get the chance to build simple systems that carry out measurements and build theories about interesting physical phenomena,” Jantzen said.

Jantzen’s grant is expected to total $443,427 over five years.

The NSF CAREER Award also recognizes outstanding and innovative research that supports the mission of the recipient’s university.

“It is almost unheard of for a humanities scholar to win a CAREER Award from the NSF, but Ben’s project is that rare thing: a truly innovative project that will bring philosophical understandings of how humans create, understand, and use categories as a tool for automating what have always been the most human of activities: curiosity-driven knowledge making and discovery,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Building robots is one thing; building robot scientists quite another. This project exemplifies the kinds of intellectual leadership that distinguish our humanities disciplines at Virginia Tech.”

Jantzen joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2011. Besides the philosophy of science, his research interests include judgment aggregation, inductive inference, pragmatism, and the philosophy of religion.

He holds a Ph.D. and a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University, a master’s degree from Cornell University, and bachelor’s degrees in biology and physics from Penn State. He was a 1998 recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, established by Congress to honor the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate.

Jantzen is the author of the book “An Introduction to Design Arguments” (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and more than a dozen articles in scholarly journals and newspapers. He has presented at global, national, and regional meetings, including the Philosophy of Science Association’s biennial meeting in 2014; and reviewed submissions for scholarly journals and conferences.

Written by Jean Elliott