Lectures by Kay O'Halloran and Donald Favareau

Dear friends in semiotics,

Please join us at the next meeting in the Juri Lotman and Jakob von Uexküll lectures series on December 20 at 2.15 pm in Jakobi 2-336.

The presenters are Kay O'Halloran (University of Liverpool) and Donald Favareau (Singapore State University).

Hope to meet you all!


Juri Lotman Lectures ja Jakob von Uexküll Lectures plakat

Kay O'Halloran: Cultural Semiotics: Challenges and Opportunities

In this talk, I explore the role of cultural semiotics today. Specifically, I examine the challenges arising from the power, knowledge, and wealth generated from semiotic data by the large technology companies. I will examine the recent developments in digital technology and AI, with a view to understanding the functions of the current digital ecosystem and the semiosphere which results. This includes discussion of how semiotic data is collected and analysed topredict and control human behaviour, resulting in the “unauthorised privatization of the division of learning in society today” (Zuboff, 2019: 192). As Zuboff further explains: “technology only contributes to shared prosperity when it is tamed by democratic rights, values, principles, and the laws that sustain them in our daily lives” (preface to Acemoglu & Johnson 2023).  Within this context, I examine the role of cultural semiotics in shaping the future.



Acemoglu, D & Johnson, S. (2023). Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity. London: Basic Books.

O’Halloran, K. L. (2023). Meaning, Matter and Semiotics. Visual Communication, 22(1). Special Issue: 20 Years of Visual Communication, edited by Louise Ravelli, Janina Wildfeuer et al.

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs.



Don Favareau: Biosemiotic General Intelligence 

After a brief period in which the early “machine learning” dream of eventually developing a human-like and even super-human-like, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) was more or less put to rest, and subsumed by the development of more targeted and less ambitious computational and robotic technologies, with the global release of Generative Pre-Trained Transformer based software such as Chat GPT and DALL-E to the public “in 2023, everything changed” in the both the professional and in the public discourses surrounding Artificial Intelligence in general, and AGI in particular, as Audi Viidalepp reveals so cogently in her recent doctoral dissertation, The Expected AI as a Sociocultural Construct and its Impact on the Discourse on Technology (2023). 

As Viidalepp shows, such discourse “is saturated with reified metaphors [of anthropomorphism and technological determinism] which drive connotations and delimit understandings of technology in society” (2023: 13). Too, along with reviving ancient fears, hopes and debates on the role of “technology” in the lives of human beings, the current discourse surrounding these technologies once again makes salient the foundational biosemiotic question of “How are we to understand the nature of an ‘intelligent’ system per se?” Is it the result of algorithmic computation and stochastic probability functioning? The “imprinting of meaning” via the creation of embodied and enacted “functional circles” in an otherwise unlabeled world? Or the navigation of co-ordinates within a cultural (or even natural) matrix of possibility, actuality and lawfulness, as described by Peircean triadic sign logic?

Such questions have always been, and remain, at the heart of the biosemiotic research agenda, and in this talk, I will take the opportunity to reflect a bit on the implications that a serious consideration of the biosemiotic perspective on organismic intelligence might bring to the current discourse surrounding the possibilities and perils of AI and AGI, as they are currently conceived. 



Favareau, Donald and Kull, Kalevi (in press). Conceptualizing the Role of Signs and Meanings in the Biosphere: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Pathways to the Origin and Evolution of Meanings in the Universe. Sharov. A., Gordon, R., Mikhailovsky, G. and Seckbach, J. (Eds). Austin: Scrivner.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. (1857-1914[1931-1935; 1958]). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volumes 1-8. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 

Uexküll, Jakob von. (1926 [1928]). Theoretical Biology. D.L. Mackinnon (trans). Kegan Paul, London.

Viidalepp, Auli. (2023). The Expected AI as a Sociocultural Construct and its Impact on the Discourse on Technology. Tartu: Tartu University Press. 

Frenoloogiline pea

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