Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Form of "Wonder Woman!"

"Wonder Twin Powers - ACTIVATE!"
Remember that show? I don't care that it was against the rules, I wanted to take the form of Superman!" In my last post I floated the topic of filling out a "form" to describe a person. It was a hint at the method I am using to digest all the knowledge flowing out of the wellspring of human creativity these days. I mentioned in my first post that specialization may have been the shiny red bike of the 20th Century, but it doesn't do anything for me. Bill Gates, like most of us, read through an encyclopedia but I want to have deep knowledge of biology, physics, robotics, theology, psychology, sociology, history, politics, art, music, ethics... you get the idea?

If you want to make a process efficient, you have to figure out what tasks are done over and over and optimize and automate them. For gathering and learning knowledge, one of these tasks is internalizing new concepts. First you have to learn that there is a concept to be learned, then you must learn what it is, practice using it and apply it to other concepts. That takes a long time! We have to have an easy form to fill in that gives everything we need to understand a concept or system in one cross-referenced place. What-the-heck kind of form could possible do that? There is an answer that has been around for awhile which I can explain fairly easily, but it involves Kansas and aliens.

Kansas is a flat, dusty place so it is ideal for people who run ultra-marathons because it isn't enough to tell people that you run 50 or 100 mile races, you must also say that you did in in a desert or in the freezing cold at 10,000 feet. My brother is just such a person and as we drove through Kansas toward his race he passed the time by asking me to explain Plato and Aristotle to him. Such a person can keep running though all hope is lost! Nevertheless, he was having a hard time understanding how Aristotle related his "four reasons" to his mentor's (Plato) idea that there are forms of things. When you pull the jargon away from these people's ideas, they really aren't too mysterious. In addition to running in crazy ways, my brother starts small businesses. These days he runs a moody little coffee shop where he and his friends play the blues in the morning. One of his skills is communicating with people who work for him so I asked him this: Pretend you're sending an employee to an alien planet to document how things are done there; you have no idea what you will find. All you can do is give your employee a form and say "whenever you see some technology of interest, fill out this form please." What would be on the form? You see how I got his creative juices going?

Plato said there were forms for types of things. Technically, he probably didn't mean sheets of paper with blanks to be filled in, but concepts; but that is how we wish to record concepts! His big question was "what is the form of the form?" What would a form that could be filled out to describe any other form look like? Aristotle gave part of an answer. He said that there were four important details. Are these details obscure? Are they hard to understand? Not really. My brother came up with three of the four in fifteen minutes. 1) What does it do or what is it for? 2) What is it made of? 3) How does it work? Aristotle added, 4) what changes it i.e., what are its inputs. Since one object may be a 'changer' or input to something else, we get to know what its outputs are for free. It sounds like a plan for a modern gadget! We have: Inputs, outputs, internals, a design and "use-cases!"

Are Aristotle's handy little forms enough for us to capture all the knowledge we need from all the fields that are flowering? To answer that we need to ask what we will be doing with these forms and see if it can be done. Here is what I want to do with them. First of all, I want to have them collected on the Internet in such a way that anyone can add to them. It is a sort of "formal" wikipedia. Next, I want to have problems like incompatibilities automatically pointed out and un-filled blanks (ya: unanswered questions) listed. Third, I want to be able to keep track of which ones I personally know or, in the case of skills, can do, and chart my progress. That is the first "big document" from my last post. I'll add to and refine this process in later posts. For now, let us take a look at the second goal: automatic processing of the forms.

If articles on wikipedia are examples of what we can expect to have "formalized", it is clear that without some kind of automation and lots of short-cuts, my project is doomed. Aristotle again comes to the rescue, or at least he gives it a good shot. If all the forms we produce are filled out in English or another natural language, then we haven't done any better than Wiki, which is, after all, in natural language. Aristotle's amazing idea was that we do not need every aspect of a natural language to fill in the forms. In fact, he was able to reduce so much language to just four sentences (which I shall show you soon) that for two thousand years no one noticed that there were things that couldn't be "digitized". We have these four sentences which can be used like mad-libs. Just replace the X's and Y's with nouns as in the examples on the right side.

  1. All X's are Y's: All people are mortal
  2. Some X's are Y's: Some dogs are pets
  3. No X's are Y's: No cats are fish
  4. Some X's are not Y's: Some cats are not picky eaters
A computer could use Aristotle's rules to check for compatibilities. For example, If it found example number 3 above and also found "Some cats are fish" it could list that as an issue.

Alas, though Ari's system foreshadows 20th Century Logic and even set theory which is considered by some to be the foundation for mathematics, neither his sentences nor his rules, nor his "four field form-for-forms" will work. His system has three major problems:
  1. The system can't automate the processing of information about relationships among several things. So, simulating the work of enzymes is not possible. Neither is it possible to correctly represent "love" which, after all, is a relationship.
  2. The system can't automate the processing of information about how the parts of something work to create a whole. How do the parts of a bicycle make transportation device? (This is related to 1. How do the relations among the parts produce a whole?)
  3. The system is a HUGE PAIN to use. Especially when discussing numbers. I'd like more than four sentence types please!
My standards for what will work are very high because I really want the knowledge without the hassle. If I had to convert wikipedia into those four sentences I would be saving about as much time as using a fully updated copy of MS Windows XP right before the release of Vista! SLOOOOOWWW!

I also do not want to have to use the whole convoluted mess of mathematics with its huge, unwieldy tree structure where objects are described by numbers in matrixes which are based on number theory which is based on group theory which is based on set theory which is based on logic, blah, bla blah, bla blah...

For now, I'm off to sleep.

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