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Re: [ontolog-forum] standard ontology

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 17 Feb 2009 12:16:39 -0500
Message-id: <499AF0F7.5010809@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Don,    (01)

 > I suspect there's lot of reasons a number of smart people made
 > decisions that landed the ontology effort in its current quagmire.
 > If the rationale for those decisions remains forever in the
 > shadows we are much more likely to repeat then.    (02)

If you want a simple answer, the best one I can think of is the
maxim by Fred Brooks about software problems in general:    (03)

    There is no silver bullet.    (04)

There is nothing wrong with looking for and developing promising
ideas and pushing them as far as they can go.  But people have a
tendency to latch onto a single principle as if it were a magic
potion or silver bullet that would solve all the problems or
destroy all the demons in "one swell foop".    (05)

For ontology, I would say that the mythical silver bullet is the goal
that Leibniz proposed in his _Dissertio de Arte Combinatoria_, 1666:    (06)

    If controversies were to arise there would be no more need of
    disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants.
    For it would suffice to take their pencils in their hands, and
    say to each other:  Calculemus [Let us calculate].    (07)

He wrote that dissertation in a fit of youthful exuberance when he
was 20 years old.  He assigned prime numbers to primitive concepts
and represented composite concepts by products of primes.  If the
number for concept A divides the number of concept B, then it
follows that every B is an A.    (08)

Leibniz was inspired by the 13th century philosopher, poet, and
theologian Ramon Lull, who inscribed primitive concepts on rotating
disks to form all possible combinations.  Lull called his system
the _Ars Magna_ [Great Art], which he thought would be the silver
bullet that would determine all the attributes of God and resolve
all the theological controversies.    (09)

When he was in his 50s, Leibniz wrote his _New Essays on Essays on
Human Understanding_, which had a more sober, but still hopeful
attitude about ontology:    (010)

    The art of ranking things in genera and species is of no small
    importance and very much assists our judgment as well as our
    memory. You know how much it matters in botany, not to mention
    animals and other substances, or again moral and notional entities
    as some call them. Order largely depends on it, and many good
    authors write in such a way that their whole account could be
    divided and subdivided according to a procedure related to genera
    and species. This helps one not merely to retain things, but also
    to find them. And those who have laid out all sorts of notions
    under certain headings or categories have done something very useful.    (011)

Four score and a few years later, Kant wrote his _Critique of Pure
Reason_ in which he proposed his famous 12 primitive categories as
a replacement for Aristotle's.  Kant was still hopeful:    (012)

    If one has the original and primitive concepts, it is easy to add
    the derivative and subsidiary, and thus give a complete picture
    of the family tree of the pure understanding. Since at present,
    I am concerned not with the completeness of the system, but only
    with the principles to be followed, I leave this supplementary
    work for another occasion. It can easily be carried out with the
    aid of the ontological manuals.    (013)

Two hundred years later, Kant's "easy" task is still unfinished.
Various people continued to work on related areas, including
Roget with his famous _Thesaurus_.    (014)

In 1984, Doug Lenat got the funding to start the Cyc project,
using modern technology to complete the task that Lull, Leibniz,
Kant, Roget, and many others never finished.  In 2004, after
spending $70 million, the funding agencies cut his budget and
paid him and his group to record their experiences in a series
of reports.  See    (015)

    http://www.cyc.com    (016)

When Doug started his project in 1984, many AI people were jealous
that they didn't get the funding to do something like that.  But
today, most of them are happy that they can't be blamed for it.    (017)

Yet people are still trying to find silver bullets.  As an example,
I would cite the "layer cake" diagram for the Semantic Web, which
is the *only* strategy document for the whole project.  I am also
amazed that people are still asking for more millions to repeat
the exercise that Lenat & Co. have been working on for nearly
a quarter century without producing applications that can keep
them in business.  (They have a few, but they still need research
grants in order to survive in a much reduced mode.)    (018)

In the first century after Kant, C. S. Peirce had a realistic
evaluation of what everybody from Lull to Leibniz to Lenat have
been trying to do:    (019)

    The task of classifying all the words of language, or what's
    the same thing, all the ideas that seek expression, is the most
    stupendous of logical tasks.  Anybody but the most accomplished
    logician must break down in it utterly; and even for the
    strongest man, it is the severest possible tax on the logical
    equipment and faculty.    (020)

Peirce wrote this observation in a letter to B. E. Smith, the
editor of the _Century Dictionary_.  Peirce had worked as an
associate editor of that dictionary, for which he wrote, revised,
or edited over 16,000 definitions.  Since he was also a pioneer
in developing modern symbolic logic, he knew what he was talking
about.  He considered the idea to be important, but he definitely
did not think it would be "easy".    (021)

I still think that work on ontology is useful.  But I would put the
search for primitives and a full-blown upper ontology on the back
burner as a *research* project that might be useful, but *not* as
a prerequisite for practical applications.    (022)

In fact, one lesson that Lenat learned in the first five years
of the Cyc project is the need to break up the ontology into a
collection of smaller "microtheories" devoted to special domains.
He said that the most important axioms for detailed reasoning
were in the middle and lower level microtheories, *not* in the
axioms associated with the upper levels.    (023)

I believe that if Lenat had taken that point to heart, he could
have developed the business side of Cycorp for doing consulting
and application development.  If he had built up that part of
the business, the profits could have supported the research.    (024)

That business model has worked well at other companies, and
it's what we're doing at VivoMind.  For examples, see    (025)

    http://www.jfsowa.com/talks/pursue.pdf    (026)

John    (027)

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