Skip to main content

A Semantic Engagement

When someone says something to the effect “We will add Semantics and all your problems will be solved” the image that that conjures up for me is salt: “Let us sprinkle some Semantics and it will taste better”. And, yes, somehow, Semantics always seems to be capitalized.

Needless to say, I do not buy this for a couple of reasons:

  • Everything has some kind of semantics. It just may not be all that useful.

  • Any explicit representation of the semantic relationships becomes syntactical. Processing therefore becomes processing of structures; you are still writing regular code to do that processing.

  • There is no such thing as two people or agents having the same interpretation of a term. Oops, there goes all that Ontology stuff :) What a chair means to me is overlapping, but different to what it means to you. Even for me, the meaning depends on what I am trying to do (arrange them for dinner, sit on one, ship it and so on.).


Luckily, agreement on the meaning of a term is neither possible nor necessary. All that is needed is some form of congruence in the interpretations.

I think that the really important concept is “Semantic Engagement”. Or, in simple terms, “What it means to me at the moment”.

Semantic engagement is the relationship between an agent (software, person, whatever; but active) and some body of information that defines the agent's interpretation of that information.

For example, a Web browser's semantic engagement with information that is sucks in is founded on HTML: it understands HTML in order that it can display it; but does not generally understand what the HTML is for.

This applies to people as well as software. Just in case you thought that you always understand what something is for, just consider the last time that your eyes 'glazed over' some topic and you just let it wash over you. For most people, reading EULAs comes into that category.

Semantic Engagement is a useful concept because it limits what you have to do: in the formal setting of a software system you can often define pretty well what a particular module has to do. As in the case of the browser, it often amounts to a fairly shallow understanding of the information while anything deeper in the information is somehow transmitted further on to a different module/layer.

In the case of Ontologies, I believe that the implication is that you cannot separate semantics from intended purpose. Any ontology is a model; and to paraphrase

All ontologies are wrong, some are useful.

Popular posts from this blog

Concept Oriented Markup

I have long been frustrated with all the different text mark up languages and word processors that I have used. There are many reasons for this; but the biggest issue is that markups (including very powerful ones like TeX) are not targeted at the kind of stuff I write.

Nowadays, it seems archaic to still be thinking in terms of sections and chapters. The world is linked and that applies to the kind of technical writing that I do.

I believe that the issue is fundamental. A concept like "section" is inherently about the structure of a document. But, what I want to focus on are concepts like "example", "definition", and "function type".

A second problem is that, in a complex environment, the range of documentation that is available to an individual reader is actually composed of multiple sources. Javadoc exemplifies this: an individual library may be documented using Javadoc into a single HTML tree. However, most programmers require access to multiple…

Robotic Wisdom

It seems to me that one of the basic questions that haunt AI researchers is 'what have we missed?' Assuming that the goal of AI is to create intelligence with similar performance to natural intelligence; what are the key ingredients to such a capability?

There is an old saw
It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill
There is a lot of truth to that; it effectively amounts to 10 years of more-or-less full-time focus. This has been demonstrated for many fields of activity from learning an instrument, learning a language or learning to program.

But it does not take 10,000 hours to figure out if it is raining outside, and to decide to carry an umbrella. What is the difference?

One informal way of distinguishing the two forms of learning is to categorize one as `muscle memory' and the other as 'declarative memory'. Typically, skills take a lot of practice to acquire, whereas declarative learning is instant. Skills are more permanent too: you tend not to forget a skill; but it is…

Comments Should be Meaningless

This is something of a counterintuitive idea:
Comments should be meaningless
What, I hear you ask, are you talking about? Comments should communicate to the reader! At least that is the received conventional wisdom handed does over the last few centuries (decades at least).

Well, certainly, if you are programming in Assembler, or C, then yes, comments should convey meaning
because the programming language cannot
So, conversely, as a comment on the programming language itself, anytime the programmer feels the imperative to write a meaningful comment it is because the language is not able to convey the intent of the programmer.

I have already noticed that I write far fewer comments in my Java programs than in my C programs.  That is because Java is able to capture more of my meaning and comments would be superfluous.

So, if a language were able to capture all of my intentions, I would never need to write a comment.

Hence the title of this blog.