The Semiotics of Cybernetic Percept-Action Systems

The Semiotics of Cybernetic Percept-Action Systems

Peter Cariani (Harvard Medical School, USA)
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/ijsss.2011010101
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In this paper, a semiotic framework for natural and artificial adaptive percept-action systems is presented. The functional organizations and operational structures of percept-action systems with different degrees of adaptivity and self-construction are considered in terms of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic relations. Operational systems-theoretic criteria for distinguishing semiotic, sign-systems from nonsemiotic physical systems are proposed. A system is semiotic if a set of functional sign-states can be identified, such that the system’s behavior can be effectively described in terms of operations on sign-types. Semiotic relations involved in the operational structure of the observer are outlined and illustrated using the Hertzian commutation diagram. Percept-action systems are observers endowed with effectors that permit them to act on their surrounds. Percept-action systems consist of sensors, effectors, and a coordinative part that determines which actions will be taken. Cybernetic systems adaptively steer behavior by altering percept-action mappings contingent on evaluated performance measures via embedded goals. Self-constructing cybernetic systems use signs to direct the physical construction of all parts of the system to create new syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic relations. When a system gains the ability to construct its material hardware and choose its semiotic relations, it achieves a degree of epistemic autonomy, semantic closure, and pragmatic self-direction.
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Signs, Signals, And Symbols And In Natural And Artificial Worlds

Semiotic systems play critical functional roles in both natural and artificial worlds. Three major semiotic domains exist in natural and artificial worlds that involve signs for the construction of organizations, signs for the coordination of behavior, and signs for communication. First, signs guide the construction, maintenance, and reproduction of complex structural organizations. Second, in both nervous systems of organisms and control systems of robots, signs and signals provide the informational frameworks for appropriate, effective action. Many of these are adaptive, cybernetic systems that use signs to steer and modify percept-action linkages in order to satisfy goals embedded in their functional organization. The term cybernetic here refers to “communication and control in animals and machines” (Wiener, 1948) and the movement that arose for its study in all of its manifestations (Ashby, 1956; de Latil, 1956; Pask, 1961; Pickering, 2010; Von Foerster, 2003). Third, in natural societies and artificial networks signs and signals permit communication of messages and coordination of behavior. In addition to contexts where an explicit message is transmitted, signs can also be used evocatively, to directly modulate the internal mental states of a receiver, as in poetry and music.

At the core of all life are genetic codes that guide the construction and maintenance of the functional organizations of organisms (Barbieri, 2003, 2008; Pattee, 2008). Likewise, for fabricated artefacts, sign-encoded plans, whether held in human memories or in externalized sign-systems, guide the design and construction process. Virtually all types of organisms have means of sensing their immediate environments and reacting accordingly. Coordinative sign systems permit organisms to reliably act in a manner that is most appropriate to the current sensed states-of-affairs in their surroundings. Communicative sign systems enable organisms and devices to pass messages to each other that share information and coordinate behaviors so as to expand the capabilities of groups via the cooperative socialization of perception, thought, memory and action.

Biosemiotics concerns the study of sign-systems that are embedded within and utilized by living organisms. Conventionally, the making of meaning (semiosis) and the use of language have been assumed to be almost uniquely human capabilities. Biosemiotics viewed through this anthropocentric lens appears at first glance as the study of special cases of more primitive systems of meaning and communication in higher, non-human animals. But within the wider perspective of signs and signals as ubiquitous features of all life, human communicative sign systems become but special cases in a much larger universe of signs and their uses.

As users of human semiotic systems, we usually have a fairly clear idea of their uses and purposes. Because fellow humans have designed and fabricated them, there is usually no question of identifying the signs involved and their functions (perhaps with an exception for signs in works of art). A traffic light has an obvious semiotic structure in its operation – it is easy to see how the different states of the light switch the behavior of the traffic and also how those states signify particular, stop-go commands to the drivers of vehicles. However, the situation in the natural world is usually not this simple – one may not know a priori what are the primitive sign distinctions, functions, and purposes that may be operant in a cell or a brain. Fundamental questions for biosemiotics therefore must focus first on how semiotic processes in the natural world can be distinguished from non-semiotic processes.

This paper outlines a framework for sign-based percept-action coordinations in adaptive self-constructing and self-modifying systems and a methodology for identifying semiotic functional organizations in such systems. The framework encompasses both artificial adaptive systems and biological brains, although for simplicity and clarity, most of the discussion will focus on high-level schematics of simple percept-action systems.

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