timothy falconer's semantic weblog
Big Fractal Tangle

Shooting the Moon

“In the long run [people] hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” (Thoreau)

Mr. Shirky’s article The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview is a real piece of work. I don’t agree with any of it, but I’m still glad he wrote it. Nothing motivates me more than baseless partisan bluster, and while I know he’s just muddying the waters to appear deep, I’ve decided to use his article, and him, to make a larger point.

This is the promise of the Semantic Web — it will improve all the areas of your life where you currently use syllogisms. Which is to say, almost nowhere. (Shirky)

What’s his agenda? Yeah, he’s being contrary and clever because it attracts more eyeballs, but there’s more to it. Does he think he’s helping us out? Is he doing us a service by pointing out something we can’t see? Is he looking to warn decision makers? Does he want to dry up our funding, so he can champion competing paradigms? Or is he simply de-hyping the hype as a public service?

“If the world can’t be reduced to unambiguous statements that can be effortlessly recombined, then it will be hard to rescue the Artificial Intelligence project. And that, of course, would be unthinkable.” (Shirky)

He’s definitely got an axe to grind with AI, which sheds some light. In my experience, people who trash-talk AI are usually missing the point of AI. Somewhere along the line they’ve become convinced that we’re all working night and day to create Commander Data or something. Perhaps they’ve read a chapter or two of a survey textbook, or listened to a few interviews aimed at laypeople, then slam, their minds close: like some sport, AI must either win or lose before the clock runs out.

“After 50 years of work, the performance of machines designed to think about the world the way humans do has remained, to put it politely, sub-optimal.” (Shirky)

Maybe I’m out of the loop, but I see nothing but successes from AI over the years. AI researchers have been responsible for some geniunely useful algorithms, heuristics, design patterns, and architectures, many of which are best practices in the software industry. The problem is, AI doesn’t get any credit for these advances, since they get gobbled up by the mainstream, as perhaps might happen with the Semantic Web.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. (Kennedy)

AI and the Semantic Web are a lot like the moon race in the sixties. There’s this big goal, and that’s all people see. Nevermind the million achievements along the way, which alter our technological landscape forever. To the naysayers, it’s to the moon and back, or the whole thing fails completely.

“I did not fail 1073 times, I found 1073 ways not to do it.” (Edison)

The trick is to keep the grand vision in view while we trudge our way closer, bit by useful bit. And if what we’re building falls short of our imaginings, we’ll ask, “Are we better because of it?” If we can answer “Yes”, we’re succeeding. We’ll then point to our humble achievements and patiently explain how far we’ve climbed. Promising only pieces, we’ll build the bigger thing, eventually.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” (Thoreau)

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