Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What is the unit of knowledge?

A lot of talk about knowledge, but what exactly is the unit of knowledge?

Computers have bits, bytes, words, integers, floating point, and strings, but how do we even talk about the units of knowledge?

Before continuing, I would note one interesting answer that I stumbled upon using Google. According to Dan Markovitz of TimeBack Management, a common saying around Toyota is that:

The basic unit of knowledge is a question.

That may have some utility, but begs the question is to what the unit of questions might be, leaving us with not much more than we started.

A variation of that adage might be an axiom about units of knowledge:

The basic unit of knowledge is the most narrow and focused question that we can formulate about knowledge.

A corollary of that axiom would be:

The basic unit of knowledge is the response to the most narrow and focused question that we can formulate about knowledge.

But, I am not so sure that such an axiom must necessarily be true. A question is like a tool, a measuring and manipulation device, used to access knowledge. But in the real world it seems as if matter has an even finer structure than the finest tools we can construct for measuring and manipulating matter. On the other hand, maybe that merely means that we simply are not yet smart enough to envision such tools. In some cases, such as with subatomic particles, we use indirect tools such as particle accelerators to smash particles apart so we can observe the results. So, maybe my axiom is not so far off, for now.

WikiAnswers.com has an interesting answer:

Q: What is the smallest unit of knowledge?

A: The adjective.

That is along the lines of a thought I had, that attributes of objects may be the smallest units of knowledge.

I mostly think of knowledge as collections of statements about objects, phenomena, or beliefs.

We could say that the statement is the "unit" of knowledge, but to me a statement is more a form of knowledge, a container rather than the contents of the container. We are more interested in the units of the contents of statement "containers."

Operationally, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, interjections, and conjunctions (the eight parts of speech) are the basic natural language units for knowledge. Or you could say that words are the units of natural language knowledge. This is certainly true, but seems to sidestep the issue of true "knowledge" in the sense that an assembly of words can suddenly conjure up a meaning that quite distinct from the meanings of the individual words.

A dictionary might contain all of the words used in a novel, but the real question is what is the unit of storytelling that makes a novel what it is rather than just a sequence of statements.

An operational definition from the world of the Semantic Web is the RDF statement or RDF triple which consists of a subject, predicate (or property), and object. An RDF statement can be somewhat analogous to an adjective. At least in the context of the Semantic Web, RDF triples are clearly the unit of "knowledge." But, that begs the question of whether the Semantic Web as currently envisioned is comprehensive enough to represent all knowledge.

For now, I am comfortable using the statement as the unit of basic knowledge. For example:

  • The apple is red.
  • Some apples are red.
  • Not all apples are red.
  • The apple is on the table.
  • There is no apple on the table.

Next, there are various forms of statements:

  • Existence. The fact that some object, phenomenon, or belief does or does not exist.
  • Attributes. Such as the color or location or size of an object.
  • Relationships to other objects (or phenomena or beliefs). How do the objects in the world interact.

We can also refer to such simple statements as facts. There is some appeal to suggesting that facts are the units of knowledge. Whether facts and statements are the same or dissimilar in some way is left for further consideration in the future.

An immediate question is the status of questions relative to statements. My current thesis is that questions are simply another form of statement, a kind of mirror reflection of statements:

  • Is the apple red?
  • Are all apples red?
  • Is there an apple on the table?
  • Where is the apple?

We could presume that the form of the answer or response to any question is the unit of knowledge.

Next, there is the issue of compositional structuring of statements, collections of statements that are related somehow. This is where things get, literally, interesting, since such collections of statements may in fact be the unit for storytelling, for constructing elaborate stories, including novels. These collections of statements may in fact represent a unit of meaning that is in fact far richer than the level of simple, factual statements. So, we have this issue of whether facts or story-level meaning should be our unit of knowledge.

Google has a project called knol which is billed as "a unit of knowledge". A knol is in fact a full-blown paper or essay or article, comparable to a Wikipedia article. That is a rather different usage of the term "unit." One could propose that a "unit" of knowledge is an interesting and usable package of knowledge, including books, web pages, PDF documents, magazines, movies, podcasts, blogs, blog posts, Twitter "tweets", etc. Fair enough.

Maybe my final thought, for now, is that a unit of knowledge is any form of knowledge that is usable, as is. Even a passage of text clipped out of the middle of a paragraph might be a usable unit of knowledge.

I have not answered the initial question precisely, but I think there is enough foundation to proceed without having a precise definition, for now.

-- Jack Krupansky


At August 11, 2012 at 3:16 PM , Anonymous Maximilion said...

The adjective as a basic unit of knowledge is reminiscent of Kant's efforts to find basic properties of all things.

Very interesting! Came across this looking for a latin word for "items" similar to "data" (from datum).

I'd like to follow you, but I seem unable to subscribe via email, would you consider installing the plug-in for that option?

If you want to read me I'm at the link below.

At September 20, 2012 at 12:49 PM , Anonymous Nick said...

A unit of knowledge is equal to any sequence of occurrences.

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At July 11, 2013 at 8:45 PM , Blogger Franco said...

What about "a concept" as a unit of knowledge? a concept as an abstraction of an idea, or a peace of knowledge. For example "the concept of sum". It is also a "unit" because more than 1 concepts may form a more complex concept, like the "multiplication"; the "sum" is a concept you must understand and "know" before understanding it.

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