Peter Cariani’s Second Paper Proposal

The functional organization of self-constructing observer-actors

A framework describing the functional organization of computers, scientific predictive models, and cybernetic percept-action systems is presented (Cariani, P. (2011). The semiotics of cybernetic percept-action systems. International Journal of Signs and Semiotic Systems, 1(1), 1-17.). Cybernetic systems have internal goals that adaptively steer, switch, and/or construct informational functions.

Basic percept-action systems engage in ongoing transactions with their surrounds using several basic informational operations: measurements, computations/coordinations, and actions. Measurements alter internal states contingent on sensor-environment interactions; coordinations/computations reliably map internal states to other internal states; actions activate effectors to create changes in the external environment contingent on internal states.

Scientific models can be described operationally (following Hertz, Bridgman, Bohr, Cassirer, van Fraasen, von Glasersfeld) in terms of measurements and formal predictive computations that assumes no knowledge of any objective reality, (i.e. is compatible with radical constructivist epistemology). Systems-theoretic criteria based on observed state-transition structure (Ashby) can be used to demarcate “epistemic cuts” where measurements end and computations begin.

The semiotics of percept-action systems can be described in terms of the Morrisean triad: measurements determine the external perceptual semantics of internal states, computations the syntactic relations between them, and actions their external action-semantics. Pragmatics is the relation of internal states to system-purposes. Purposive systems have embedded goal states and mechanisms for adjustment of action contingent on sensory inputs, current internal state, and evaluative criteria. Purposive systems have agency to the extent that they can act autonomously to pursue internal goals.

Adaptive percept-actions systems are those that modify their internal structure and operation contingent on the evaluated efficacy of their actions in order to improve actions to better satisfy internal goals. Within this framework, adaptive adjustments can occur on three levels: incremental steering adjustments, switching between existing discrete alternatives (“combinatoric creativity”), and creation of entirely new alternatives (“emergent creativity”)(Cariani, P. (2012). Creating new primitives in minds and machines. In McCormack & D’Inverno (Eds.), Computers and Creativity (pp. 395-430), Springer.).
For steering, incremental adjustments of parameters are made that deform but do not qualitatively change percept-action mappings.

Adaptive switching alters mappings qualitatively, but within the confines of existing perceptual features and action-alternatives. Virtually all trainable machines fall into this category. Adaptive creation of new alternatives can arise through self-construction of new underlying hardware that enables additional, entirely new internal states, measurements (sensors) and actions (effectors) to be created. Biological evolution is filled with the emergence of new senses, new action-alternatives, and neural coordinative possibilities that successively expand the Uexkullian umwelts of lineages. Self-construction of sensors permits epistemic autonomy (creation of new observables). Pask’s electrochemical device is an artificial example of functional emergence of this sort that expanded the dimensionality of its distinction-space (Cariani, P. (1993). To evolve an ear: epistemological implications of Gordon Pask’s electrochemical devices. Systems Research, 10(3), 19-33. Pask, G. (1959). Physical analogues to the growth of a concept. Mechanization of Thought Processes, Vol II. (pp. 765-794). H.M.S.O.). These concepts bear potential implications for construction of new concepts in brains and for constructivist epistemology more generally.


Cybernetic traditions:

  • 3) Experimental epistemology; constructivism; philosophy of science
  • 1) Computer science; AI; robotics

2 thoughts on “Peter Cariani’s Second Paper Proposal

  1. Ranulph Glanville

    This looks like a very powerful paper, to me, and yet I am surprised at the easy use of standard link ups. I’m not known for my love of semiotics, of course, but I wonder about the easy slippage into cybersemiotics (or between cybernetics and semiotics) for instance. In an abstract this is inevitable, but I would be interested to be helped to understand this move. This is because what I see in semiotics is a reification of sign and meaning, which seem to me to be at least one step removed from cybernetic understandings of the construction of meaning in the “listener”. Nor am I sure that you propose as your understanding of what is radical in radical constructivism matches my understanding: that it is not only a return to the root (radix), but that it introduces doubt as an essential element (as do some of the variants on Foerster’s comment about the undecidable).

    These questions are possibly beyond the scope of a paper, but they suffuse this paper in the background and are matters, in my opinion, for very important consideration, perhaps central to the development of how we understand what cybernetics brings us as both a way of thinking and, more importantly (I believe) a way of living.

  2. Peter Cariani

    Hi Ranulph,
    Thanks for your comments — sorry for the delay on my end. I’m not sure what you mean by “easy use of standard link ups”, but I have tried to make a straightforward framework that deals, in the spirit of (naturalized) biosemiotics, with the functional organization of information (signaling processes) of organisms (mainly animals) and devices (mainly computers and robots).

    I think that cybernetics and semiotics are distinct transdisciplinary perspectives. For me, the core of cybernetics is focused on the organizations and mechanisms that subserve purposive behavior, whereas the core concerns of semiotics have to do with how distinctions are made and used in various systems and contexts (using signs, symbols, signals). The two perspectives come together when one attempts to deal with the use of (“informational”) distinctions in nervous systems and robotic systems.

    I believe that the processes underlying primitive operations involved with sensing, sensorimotor coordination, and the direction of action are distinguishable (within an Ashby systems theoretic framework — classifications of observed systems). We spend years clarifying the difference between
    a sensing (measurement) process and a determinate coordinative (“computation”) process — this allows one to be clear about the profound differences between the nature of system-environment relations of digital computers vs. robots.

    I do not defend many of the assumptions of traditional semiotics that derive from linguistics and logic, and don’t have a clear idea of where and how my framework relates to existing theories of “cybesemiotics” (Sorn Brier’s framework comes out of C.S. Pierce, who was on one hand a founder of pragmatism, but on the other tended towards logicism, realism, and referentialism in his metaphysics, which leads to all sorts of problems and confusions). My semiotic assumptions are very basic, and are related to Charles Morris’s pragmatist, non-realist/non-referntialist approach.

    I don’t think that I am reifying meaning — for me, meaning involves the functional consequences of the system, be it human, animal, or device that flow from making a particular distinction. Meaning is “in the head” (contra Putnam and many philosophers). Because the structure of most natural systems is ill-defined, and there are not complete predictive models of internal state and/or behavior (as there can be for artefacts), meaning is also ill-defined. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t have a clear idea of what we mean by “meaning”.

    I will try to contextualize the framework in terms of constructivism and non-realist epistemologies, and hopefully this will make my position more clear to the audience. What I think is “radical” in radical constructivism is the denial of an objective, knowable “real” world-in-itself that exists distal to our measuring devices (senses). Biologically and psychologically, we construct our own umwelts.

    thanks again for your comments!


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