Thursday, February 19, 2009

Theory vs Observation -- Philosophy of Science

There are essentially two ways of conducting research ... OK, everything can be made binary.

But in this respect, I am talking about what I am starting to call Theory-based research and Experiment-based research ... and I am thinking specifically about IT research.

Theory-based research involves determining an idea or a structure, learning the state of the art, then forming a new theory, perhpas expressed mathematically. Then, in computer science (computing science, web science, IT?) an instantiation of the theory may be created (i.e. a program). The program, however, is a demonstration of the theory in practice...what is desired is already known, the outcome pre-determined (if the theory was fully thought out)

Experiment-based research involves determining an idea or structure, learning the state of the art, then constructing experiments and observing the results. The theory is developed later, from generalizing observations and deriving rules based on them. The program created is the experiment and its outcomes are not known because the point of the exercise is to see what happens.

Both approaches are valid and science mores forward due to both. The first method is more deductive and the second more inductive, although these are somewhat arbitrary descriptions.

Experiment-based research is more to do with engineering in its purest sense as it expects to iteratively refine a design and to discover a rule through observation. Theory-based research is more to do with mathematics and thought experiments, any engineering being, to some degree, superfluous to the point of the research.

They are two sides of the same coin, attempts to come at ideas and discover truths in different manners and each approach has its strengths and weaknesses.

I am fascinated by emergent behaviour in systems. Emergent behaviour is systems is very hard to explore (perhaps impossible to explore) apriori via theory. The 'system' must be created and allowed to operate to observe emergent its very nature, emergent behaviour cannot be predicted, although it can be encouraged.

Consequently, most of my research is experiment-based ... build it and truths will come. I like that approach. it feels more ... satisfying ... to me.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Weak and the Strong

I've begun using the terms Weak Semantics and Strong Semantics to help people understand the difference and the application state of the art. The terms are obviously derived from Weak and Strong AI discussions. The terms have been used before but not, i think, in quite this way.

Weak Semantics are Flickr tags ... simple taxonomic annotation
Strong Semantics are fully constituted ontologically complete triple stores


Applications in the world are somewhere along a continuum between weak and strong. Most of the tagging applications and a lot of the social networking apps we are seeing and working on today fall on the weaker side of the middle of the scale.

Research efforts have typically deal with stronger semantics which ae harder to implement and manage. In particular they are hard to get performance out of.

I've noticed that more and more of our efforts fall on the left side of the scale. They are easier to understand by our partners, easier to implement, and quicker to show results. Butthe time will come for efforts on the right side of the scale. There has to be a committment to solving very hard problems with semantics to get there though and they take a long time.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Cool news

I learned last night that my book, Critical Mass: A Primer for Living with the Future, co-authored with my long time friend and business partner, Pat McGrew, is being used at a University to explain how technolgoy got to where it is.

That's very cool news.

Critical Mass is a collection of essays written in 2000 on how several aspects of technology would evolve over the next few years. We looked at and extrapolated things like electronic paper, DRM, politics with technology and several other aspects of day to day life.

I re-read it a few months ago and it holds up pretty well...I am happy to be able to say. Pat and I saw a certain inevitability of direction for technologies that were just emerging or on the horizon then and most everything evolved in the directions very similar to those we predicted.

To hear that it is being used now with a historical perspective makes me feel a bit old, but quite happy.


Critical mass is available at or from Amazon