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Timo Honkela

Born August 4, 1962, Kalajoki, died May 5, 2020

Master of Arts 1989 (computer science), University of Oulu
PhD 1998 (information technology), Helsinki University of Technology

Professor of Research into Digital Materials, University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland, 2014–
Chief Research Scientist 2006–13, Helsinki University of Technology/Aalto University
Acting Professor 2003–05, Helsinki University of Technology
CEO and Director of Research 2000–02, Gurusoft Oy
Professor 1998–2000, Helsinki School of Arts and Design
Researcher 1994–99, Helsinki University of Technology
Researcher 1990–94, Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT)
Researcher 1987–89, Sitra
Research Associate and Lecturer 1985–87, University of Oulu

Research themes:
Computational semantics and pragmatics, socio-cognitive modelling, the philosophy of artificial intelligence and its applications in the humanities and social sciences

Publications, research projects and other academic activity

Written by Timo Honkela (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Working on the Mystery of Knowledge

An enormous number of academic articles have been written on knowledge, knowing, and understanding in many different fields, from linguistics to psychology. For centuries philosophers have studied the nature of the knowledge we have about the world. After all that has already been said, is it possible to add anything truly new to the conversation? Timo Honkela answers in the affirmative.

This view is based on the possibility that computers can help us model various processes and phenomena related to knowledge. When it comes to formulating theories and models of knowledge, computers partly replace pen and paper. Honkela says that important divisions of knowledge include those between verbal and nonverbal, empirical and indirect, and individual and communal. Computers allow us to construct socio-cognitive models of, for example, how languages form, how symbolic representations are learned and used, how social forms of communication and conceptual systems are formed, and the subjective and contextual nature of the use of languages and concepts. Theories and models are constructed on different levels of abstraction, and they are compared with traditional understanding in the social sciences and the humanities. Honkela’s long-term goal has been to construct a theory of meaning in which the aforementioned themes of subjectivity and contextuality are taken into account seriously as empirical phenomena. Along the way, Honkela and his research partners have used various machine learning models to analyse the likes of Grimms’ fairy tales, online forums, interviews, speeches by American presidents, Shakespeare’s sonnets, abstract art, people’s physical activity and its verbal description, and historical newspaper articles.

There is a wide gulf between visual and verbal information, the nature of which can perhaps best be made out by constructing systems designed to perform this leap automatically.


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