Making Microsense of Semantics

Like many, I’m one who’s been around since the cinder block days, once entranced by shiny Tektronix tubes stationed nearby a dusty card sorter. After years using languages as varied as Assembler through Scheme, I’ve come to believe the shift these represented, from procedural to declarative, has well-improved the flexibility of software organizations produce.

Interest has now moved towards an equally flexble representation of data. In the ‘old’ days when an organization wanted to collect a new data-item about, say, a Person, then a new column would first be added by a friendly database administrator to a Person Table in one’s relational database. Very inflexible.

The alternative — now widely adopted — reduces databases to a simple forumulation, one that eliminates Person and other entity-specific tables altogether. These “triple-stores” basically have just three columns — Subject, Predicate and Object — in which all data is stored. Triple-stores are often called ‘self-referential’ because first, the type of a Subject of any row in a triple-store is found in a different row (not column) in the triple-store and second, definitions of types are found in different rows of the triple-store. The benefits? Not only is the underlying structure of a triple-store unchanging, but also stand-alone metadata tables (tables describing tables) are unnecessary.

Why? Static relational database tables do work well enough to handle transactional records whose dataitems are usually well-known in advance; the rate of change in those business processes is fairly low, so that the cost of database architectures based on SQL tables is equally low. What, then, is driving the adoption of triple-stores?

The scope of business functions organizations seek to automate has enlarged considerably: the source of new information within an organization is less frequently “forms” completed by users, now more frequently raw text from documents; tweets; blogs; emails; newsfeeds; and other ‘social’ web and internal sources; which have been produced received &or retrieved by organizations.

Semantic technologies are essential components of Natural Language Processing (NLP) applications which extract and convert, for instance, all proper nouns within a text into harvestable networks of “information nodes” found in a triple-store. In fact during such harvesting, context becomes a crucial variable that can change with each sentence analyzed from the text.

Bringing us to my primary distinction between really semantic and non-semantic applications: really semantic applications mimic a human conversation, where the knowledge of an indivdual in a conversation is the result of a continuous accrual of context-specific facts, context-specific definitions, even context-specific contexts. As a direct analogy, Wittgenstein, a modern giant of philosophy, calls this phenomena Language Games to connote that one’s techniques and strategies for analysis of a game’s state and one’s actions, is not derivable in advance — it comes only during the play of the game, i.e., during processing of the text corpora.

Non-semantic applications on the other hand, are more similar to rites, where all operative dialogs are pre-written, memorized, and repeated endlessly.

This analogy to human conversations (to ‘dynamic semantics’) is hardly trivial; it is a dominant modelling technique among ontologists as evidenced by development of, for instance, Discourse Representation Theory (among others, e.g., legal communities have a similar theory, simply called Argumentation) whose rules are used to build Discourse Representation Structures from a stream of sentences that accommodate a variety of linguistic issues including plurals, tense, aspect, generalized quantifiers, anaphora and others.

“Semantic models” are an important path towards a more complete understanding of how humans, when armed with language, are able to reason and draw conclusions about the world. Relational tables, however, in themselves haven’t provided similar insight or re-purposing in different contexts. This fact alone is strong evidence that semantic methods and tools must be prominent in any organization’s technology plans.

Category: Business Intelligence, Information Development, Information Strategy, Semantic Web
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