Scholar of the Week

Benjamin C. Jantzen

Benjamin C. JantzenThe Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Benjamin C. Jantzen, an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who works at the intersection of philosophy, computing, and scientific discovery.

Jantzen is interested in more than building a robot. He wants to build a "robot scientist."

He won a 2015 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development (CAREER) Award to study how to enable machines to carry out scientific research on their own. His project — Automated Scientific Discovery and the Philosophical Problem of Natural Kinds — is aimed at a new approach to automated scientific discovery.

The challenge is how to get machines to carry out novel and interesting scientific research on their own.

The project's goal is to create a robot scientist by developing computer algorithms — step-by-step procedures for solving problems. A challenge to scientific research is to determine which of all the variables related to a given phenomenon are truly relevant to discovering the scientific laws behind the phenomenon. These algorithms will automatically choose the variables to be considered without human intervention. Jantzen calls his approach the "Dynamical Kinds Theory."

The algorithms are intended to connect directly with the real world by communicating with physical systems via sensors and actuators, rather than with data that has been preprocessed by people.

In that way, programs will be able to choose new properties or scientific variables appropriate for investigating a particular phenomenon or system of interest, such as determining ecological properties useful to conservationists trying to solve a specific environmental challenge.

His goal is to foster a community of researchers with the skills and understanding to exploit the overlap between the philosophy of science and machine learning. In so doing, the work will produce broad students with understanding of computer science and philosophical systems to test theories.

"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 is the author of the book "An Introduction to Design Arguments" and more than a dozen articles in scholarly journals and newspapers.

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.

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The goals of the Scholar of the Week are to recognize individuals while also telling people about research and scholarly activities at the university.

Recognition is based on research and/or scholarship.

Please nominate individuals — not teams, groups, or more than one person.

Please provide a sentence describing the research, scholarship, or creative work in non-technical, generally accessible language. A second sentence with an example or application is helpful.

  • Send nominations to: Beth Tranter, Chief of Staff, Office of the Vice President for Research.