November 26, 2003

The AI gnomes of Zurich

With respect to an earlier Language Log piece on the Great Ontology Debate, Yarden Katz has drawn my attention to an anti-Shirky posting by Drew McDermott on the www-rdf-rules mailing list. McDermott ends with a zinger:

It's annoying that Shirky indulges in the usual practice of blaming AI for every attempt by someone to tackle a very hard problem. The image, I suppose, is of AI gnomes huddled in Zurich plotting the next attempt to --- what? inflict hype on the world? AI tantalizes people all by itself; no gnomes are required. Researchers in the field try as hard as they can to work on narrow problems, with technical definitions. Reading papers by AI people can be a pretty boring experience. Nonetheless, journalists, military funding agencies, and recently the World-Wide Web Consortium, are routinely gripped by visions of what computers should be able to do with just a tiny advance beyond today's technology, and off we go again. Perhaps Mr. Shirky has a proposal for stopping such visions from sweeping through the population.

I like the image. It suggests an on-going feature, in which three low-level employees at GnomeNet GmbH gossip about their bosses' latest Fiendish Plot forthcoming product (this month: Mindswap!). A cartoon format would be best -- I can't draw, but then there's the Partially Clips approach...

As for the content, I don't think anyone (in this discussion) will admit to being opposed to vision. The thing is, some visions turn out to be the telephone or the automobile or the internet, while others turn out to be the Picturephone, the Personal Zeppelin™ or perhaps the Philosophical Language of John Wilkins. This is an argument for pluralism but against credulousness.

[Note: the Mindswap website led to me to these slides for the keynote address On Beyond Ontology at last month's ISWC conference, which I commend to the reader. I was especially happy to see that the Universal Marketing Graphic (UMG) is still in use (slide #3, "Approaching a Knee in the Curve"). I first saw a version of this graph used for speech technology market projections back around 1977. In those days, my colleagues used to label the horizontal axis in calendar years and the vertical axis in billions of dollars. Then someone pointed out that it was annoying to have to re-do the graphic every year, and suggested that the horizontal axis should be relabeled something like "...", "last year", "this year", next year", "...". Prof. Hendler (or perhaps the GnomeNet Marketing Department?) has generalized this further by removing the labels from both axes, so that anyone can now use the graph to illustrate an optimistic forecast about any aspect of the future of anything! ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 26, 2003 08:09 AM