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Recent Readings

Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
Reviewed: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Reviewed: Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the Omnivoire's Delimma
Reviewed: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

the Golem's Eye
Reviewed: Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Clay Shirky gives the semantic web what for
Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Clay Shirky has a great article on the chief problem facing the semantic web: logic isn't all it's cracked up to be. In particular, humans don't spend much time with syllogisms.

The people working on the Semantic Web greatly overestimate the value of deductive reasoning (a persistent theme in Artificial Intelligence projects generally.) The great popularizer of this error was Arthur Conan Doyle, ... Doyle has convinced generations of readers that what seriously smart people do when they think is to arrive at inevitable conclusions by linking antecedent facts. As Holmes famously put it "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."


This sentiment is attractive precisely because it describes a world simpler than our own. In the real world, we are usually operating with partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information. When we have to make a decision based on this information, we guess, extrapolate, intuit, we do what we did last time, we do what we think our friends would do or what Jesus or Joan Jett would have done, we do all of those things and more, but we almost never use actual deductive logic.

Indeed, computer systems that enforce simple rules (or even complex rules!) on messy human situations either fail to meet human needs or are subverted.

[W]hen we see attempts to enforce semantics on human situations, it ends up debasing the semantics, rather then making the connection more informative. Social networking services like Friendster and LinkedIn assume that people will treat links to one another as external signals of deep association, so that the social mesh as represented by the software will be an accurate model of the real world. In fact, the concept of friend, or even the type and depth of connection required to say you know someone, is quite slippery, and as a result, links between people on Friendster have been drained of much of their intended meaning. Trying to express implicit and fuzzy relationships in ways that are explicit and sharp doesn't clarify the meaning, it destroys it.

I think this explains the power and explosive ferment of folksonomies: they let people do what people want to do without getting in the way. As I said before, I think that machines ought to be able to help make folksonomies better without destroying what makes them special. But the right order to do things is to support organic growth always and worry about cleanup after the system begins to get strong (a gardening metaphor?).

Much of the proposed value of the Semantic Web is coming, but it is not coming because of the Semantic Web. The amount of meta-data we generate is increasing dramatically, and it is being exposed for consumption by machines as well as, or instead of, people. But it is being designed a bit at a time, out of self-interest and without regard for global ontology. It is also being adopted piecemeal, and it will bring with it with all the incompatibilities and complexities that implies. There are significant disadvantages to this process relative to the shining vision of the Semantic Web, but the big advantage of this bottom-up design and adoption is that it is actually working now.


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Copyright -- Gary Warren King, 2004 - 2006