An Iowa State University philosophy professor beginning fall classes this week has learned he won’t be teaching when spring term arrives. It’s good news for Bill Robinson because instead he’s been recognized by ISU’s Center for Excellence in Arts and the Humanities. The honor includes a semester off to pursue his research into “philosophy of the mind.” He says it deals with two big questions. What is consciousness? What is it you lose when you go to sleep? He asks what happens when you have a pain or an itch, hear or see something — because you have to be a conscious being to have any of those so the first question is what part consciousness is in your brain. And the second question is, how does the brain make us intelligent. Robinson says it’s intelligence that lets humans respond to new things in our environment. When something new happens we respond, not always in the best way but mostly with something reasonable even when we’re under quite new circumstances. That makes us smarter than computers, which can only process information they’ve been programmed to handle. So Robinson also works with Artificial Intelligence, the way we try to make machines think, and what it teaches us about how we think. He doesn’t work in robotic, Artificial Intelligence, or computer science — but his work makes him have to know something about them. Robinson says he has to figure out what discoveries in computers, or “brain science,” tell us about ourselves, how we work, and what we can know. Robinson’s latest book was just published in May titled “Understanding Phenomenal Consciousness.” He’s been at ISU for 32 years.
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