Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bridging the semantic gap

Given that there is a semantic gap that I have been referring to as the Semantic Abyss, how exactly do we go about bridging the gap? My overall position remains that the gap is far too great to completely bridge now, or at any time in the near future. That said, it is worth considering the many ways in which we can partially bridge the gap and what potholes, barriers, and mine fields exist in the remainder of the gap. I will not endeavor to do all of that right now and right here, but some examples are worth considering.

First, we have to acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to bridge the semantic gap as a general proposition and that at best we can only hope to approximate bridging the gap. Ray Kurzweil's vision of a Singularity would obviously have to complete the 100% bridging of the semantic gap by the year 2045 if not sooner, but that is far beyond the scope of my near-term interests.

Second, we have to acknowledge that there are a multitude of semantic gaps. For example there is the semantic gap between any two individuals, we need to acknowledge that the gap differs between every distinct pair of individuals, especially depending on how much knowledge they already share.

Third, in general, bridging the gap is a bidirectional process, not a one-way communication. For example, the more knowledgeable party has to learn at least an overview of what the less-knowledgeable party already knows and doesn't know before or as part of the process of bridging the semantic gap. As a general proposition, every party has their semantic strengths and their semantic weaknesses and bridging the semantic gap simply means a semantic balancing, so that at the end of the process they each know what the other knew. But that is only as a general proposition.

Fourth, bridging the semantic gap is frequently and intentionally an asymmetric process, where one or more of the parties seeks a semantic advantage over the other. For example, in a negotiation or propaganda. Or even education where it is usually preferable to incrementally stage the semantic transfer rather than attempt to accomplish it all at once since the cognitive capabilities of the students are under development over an extended period of time. You could say that a typical student accepts a semantic weakness if only because of the incremental nature of education. An amateur might also accept a semantic weakness relative to a professional.

As a general proposition the process of bridging the semantic gap is a learning process. As an extreme case, absolute semantic peers are "on the same page" and can communicate without any significant learning required. As a practical matter even nominal semantic peers frequently are not exactly "on the same page" and miscommunication occurs until one or both parties recognizes that the peer relationship has broken down and learning is required.

Partial knowledge is a common "solution" to bridging the semantic gap. By both parties "agreeing" that not all seemingly relevant knowledge is needed in any particular situation, the semantic gap can be dramatically reduced, "by definition" (agreement.) As a specialized case, we may simply decide that computers are still far too "weak" to support full comprehension of human knowledge and decide on a structured subset of knowledge to shrink the semantic gap to a manageable size.

Hardwired knowledge is another common solution, especially, but not exclusively, with artificial entities. The entity with the hardwired knowledge doesn't really "know" what it is dealing with in a very deep and meaningful sense, but "knows" at least deep enough so that a relatively meaningful conversation can occur.

(To be continued, eventually.)

-- Jack Krupansky


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