Gualtiero Piccinini honored with K. Jon Barwise Prize for work in philosophy and computation

Gualtiero Piccinini

The American Philosophical Association named Gualtiero Piccinini the 16th recipient of the K. Jon Barwise Prize for significant and sustained contributions to areas relevant to philosophy and computing. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It was only in 2014 that the International Association for Computing and Philosophy presented Gualtiero Piccinini with the Herbert A. Simon Award for Outstanding Research in Computing and Philosophy.

That prize is intended to recognize scholars at the early stages of their academic careers for work that is likely to shape debates at the nexus of computing and philosophy.

Piccinini, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the associate director of the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, never imagined that only five years later he’d be receiving an award for “lifelong” efforts in the same field.

The American Philosophical Association announced last month that Piccinini had been chosen the 2018 recipient of the K. Jon Barwise Prize for significant and sustained contributions to areas relevant to philosophy and computing.

“It’s a big honor,” Piccinini said. “There are a number of awards in this area, but I would say this is probably the biggest just because it recognizes lifelong contribution by the American Philosophical Association. You combine the kind of award and the kind of organization – at least in this one niche – this is the biggest award you can get.”

Piccinini, who last week learned he would be promoted to Curators’ Distinguished Professor effective Sept. 1, has already contributed more than 15 years of scholarship on computation as well as philosophical theories of the mind and how it works.

In 2005, he published his first book, “Physical Computation: A Mechanistic Account,” which collected, revised and expanded upon some of his earlier work and has become a leading reference for anyone interested in physical computation.

“Piccinini delivers a comprehensive summary of previous work on physical computation, alongside the definitive presentation of his mechanistic account, and I have no doubt that this book will become a valuable resource for future work on the topic,” read a review in the journal Philosophical Psychology after it was published.

Piccinini said before the mid-to-late 2000s relatively little attention had been paid to computation in its own terms, especially with regard to scientific practices in computer science and engineering. His book examined those ideas.

“What do we mean by ‘computation’, what counts as a physical system or process that performs computations? It turns out there’s quite a lot to figure out,” he said of his book. “So I turned a lot of stones, and then because of that I ended up publishing a lot of papers. I thought it would be helpful to have it all kind of together in one place.”

He remains interested in how computation relates to the cognitive functions of the brain.

He’s working on a new book, co-authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Neal G. Anderson, that takes a critical look at “pancomputationalism,” the idea that all physical processes are computational.

“Computation is increasingly a big deal,” Piccinini said. “There’s all this talk of artificial intelligence. There’s a question of what AI is, and there are all these people speculating about the “singularity” and uploading minds into computers. There’s really need for people to think carefully about these topics and not just run with their imagination.”

Piccinini intends to continue doing just that.

He is the 16th recipient of the Barwise Prize, named to honor the late logician from Independence, Missouri, who taught and did research in philosophy, computer science and mathematics at Stanford University and Indiana University, among other institutions. Barwise died of cancer in 2000 at age 57.

Barwise’s work was centered on developing a better theoretical understanding of information content: how it is expressed in language, computers or graphical representations and how it is transferred from one form of representation to another.

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