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[ontolog-forum] some of the challenge(s) ontologists face

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "Nadin, Mihai" <nadin@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 15 Jul 2015 21:08:06 +0000
Message-id: <A54DB347E05A5F43A1B1008A02DB0ABDEA64EC4E@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>

Dear and respected colleagues,

After observing the ontolog-forum for a while, I am glad I asked to be accepted to the list. (John Sowa made me aware of it.) The buoyancy of the discussions testifies to impatience: we want to understand what we do, and we are aware that the domain knowledge in which we are active is larger than what has been assumed so far. We want to engineer in a domain that is different from an engineering model anchored in the past.


Is it knowledge engineering (splendid formula, but quite ambiguous)? Is it semantic engineering?  (To give an answer would require a better understanding of semantics, or, better yet, of semiotics.) What is it, since nobody teaches ontological engineering?  In ADDITION, you also want to change the world (government, democracy, transactions, you name it).


To be clear: at times I cringed. Some concepts are dealt with without discipline. Some views are incoherent—for me, as an observer. Just one example:  you cannot make reference to great authors of the past but dismiss a book from the 80s because it is old. However, I was rewarded for my patience: I learned a lot.


Now to what I want to say. We are what we do (cf. The Civilization of Illiteracy, available on many sites, http://www.nadin.ws/archives/429). In short, as you read this mail, this is who you are. You self-constitute in the act of reading and thinking about what you read, in the act of understanding, in the act of arguing with what you read or of accepting it. When you work on ontologies, that work defines you: you are self-constituting as ontologist. Of course, the world we share is the same; the activities through which we become what we are, are DIFFERENT. We construct our world again and again as we make ourselves part of it. These activities inform, guide our perception of the world; they engage our physical and spiritual resources (emotions, logic, sensitivity, etc.). We do not “see” the world the same way because we, all of us, are different. (I used the quotation marks around see in order to suggest the richness of the sensory experience.) Yes, the living is infinitely diverse, heterogenous.


With these simple thoughts articulated as premise, allow me to bring to your attention what I perceive to be the fundamental question of your self-constitution as ontologists: how to map an open system (language as a medium of _expression_, communication, and signification) to a closed system (interactions with a machine).


It is even more complicated: the ambiguity of language is the outcome of human practical activities inherently non-deterministic. Computers, and by extension computation, are deterministic. Artificial languages of all kinds were conceived in order to facilitate the mapping from the ambiguous to the univocal. If you’ve ever tried programming in machine language (nothing but zeros and ones), you know what the machine expects. Everything beyond is ontology at work. The first ontologists were those who wrote programming languages, and those who programmed.


In the process of outgrowing their syntax-determined condition, computers are acquiring, with your help, a semantic dimension. Meaning, however, is pragmatically determined: in what we DO—not in how we talk about what we do or what we think we do. The next age of computation (when the computer will finally outgrow its infancy) has already started—think about robots, for example (for more on this: http://www.nadin.ws/archives/2466 (i.e., predictive and anticipatory computation).


Things are even more complicated—and I respect your dedication to the impossible: computations are, by the nature of their condition (cf. Turing, etc.), tractable processes. We know when the program is complete, and we know that it has to be consistent. Otherwise the damn thing will not budge (or will run into the infinite loop we learned about). Well, you are asked to transform the intractable—i.e., that which cannot be at the same time complete and consistent—into the tractable. Goedel watches us all, and smiles. Yes, if you take a large system and you section it, you can achieve tractability—for the sub-system. These are the systems that ontologists of all flavors engineered successfully (management systems, specialized control systems, etc.). Or, to avoid the pitfalls of language, you train neural networks: “This is how you do it!” instead of a sequence of commands for asking the machine to do it. (I leave out here the distinction between algorithmic and non-algorithmic.)


Enough for a first time. Probably I should be way more concise if I seriously want to become part of the dialog.

Best wishes.



Mihai Nadin






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