Ontology sucks or helps? Depends on what you want out of it

December 25, 2015

“Fortunately”, there are various conflicting definitions available for the word “ontology” – which its role is clarifying and explicitly defining entities in a specific domain – so it approves the fact that defining and categorizing entities into specified boundaries is a difficult job even when it comes to the word ontology itself. Therefore, in many cases it’s better that this job be done by or benefited from collective intelligence, rather than a limited number of people even if they are professionals to do so, however they could provide us instructions and recommendations according to the knowledge and experience they have.

Anyway, lets provide some definitions which are more relevant to what we are going to talk about. In philosophy, it deals with subject of existence. In context of AI and knowledge sharing, it could be defined as “a specification of a conceptualization”. It is involved with clarifying entities in a specific domain and their relations to each other. Unsurprisingly, we have different types of relations including, but not limited to, being a super/sub-concept of another. Therefore we could divide these entities into groups which are interconnected and each of these groups could belong to one or more higher-level concepts/entities as well having their own subentities. Now the question is that how the overall scheme of this network of entities in a specified domain look like? Is it a hierarchical tree or a graph? And if it doesn’t have an exact tree structure, does it sufficiently look like a tree, so that we could represent it in a hierarchical form with some kind of makeup, say by providing shortcuts of some entities to the actual location they belong to? It depends. Maybe if we are supposed to sort books of a physical library, we could use tree-like hierarchies, but how about representing relationships between products of an online shopping cart? Or categorizing posts in an online forum or questions in an Q&A website? And even more crucial, how about categorizing web pages to provide them to users based on their search queries, as a search engine?

Human beings are always involved with categorizing and classification problems in their daily lives and it’s not just limited to sharing information on the web or in a library. They need to classify their stuff, their own knowledge and their plans and schedules, otherwise they will have an inefficient life. They might also agree on some rules together to be more organized and make things work better by these enforcing fixed rules – called standards – which are absolutely different from classification which makes separated categories by specified principals, so that the result of classification might be changed when the entities are altered.

To more elaborate the concept of ontology and its pros and cons, lets talk about the concept of “community of practice”.
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. However, learning is not necessarily what makes the community come together and it could be an incidental result of the community members’ interactions. There could be many properties assumed for a community to be a COP,  but we can say that at least three of these features and characteristics are crucial:


  1. The domain, so that members have common domain of interest.
  2. The community, so that members engage in joint activities and discussions in pursuing their shared interest.
  3. The practice, so that the community doesn’t have a shared interest merely and all members are practitioners.

The concept of community of practice is not an anomaly and such communities have been around as long as human beings have been learning together. There have been some assertions about properties of a COP based on early theoretical writing about them which might be partially or totally wrong today. For instance, a traditional claim says that COPs are self-organized, but we know that they mostly need some kind of articulation to be effective. Or one other assertion says that COPs are informal which is again in many cases false and we have many formal COPs.
As we see, the properties proposed for COPs have been agreed or disagreed over time and we could say that more characteristics were agreed as number of available communities grew and their similarities were more studied. Now we have a kind of ontology in domain of communities which specifies COP boundaries with three crucial and widely agreed characteristics which was an outcome of increasing participation of users of this domain to describe its entities.

Finally, back to the question proposed and the brief answer provided in the title, we should know what we want out of ontology to make judgments about it. Do we want to do it on our own and as the only solution to any knowledge sharing problem in any cases? Then it sucks. But aren’t there hybrid solutions available? Couldn’t we benefit from both what we – the professional ontologists – think and what others think, say producing some general high-level categories based on human-generated labels and experiences with a “bottom-up” concept hierarchy generation basis, or even providing a worldview, made of human-generated experience combined with a “symbolic-link-aided approximated conceptual hierarchy”?

P.S: These two critical reviews about the article “ontology is overrated” worth reading:
Clay Shirky – “Ontology is overrated”: a review
Clay Shirky’s Viewpoints are Overrated

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