Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Peter Silva, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Gerardo A Dada, Liz McMillan

Related Topics: @CloudExpo, Industrial IoT, Microservices Expo, Containers Expo Blog, Agile Computing, @BigDataExpo

@CloudExpo: Article

Semantic Interoperability: The Pot of Gold Under the Rainbow

The problem with semantic interoperability is that human communication is inherently vague, ambiguous, and relative

Our ZapThink 2020 poster lays out our complex web of predictions for enterprise IT in the year 2020. You might think that semantic operability is an important part of this story; after all, several groups have been heads down working on the problem of how to teach computers to agree on the meaning of the information they exchange for years now. But look again: we relegate semantics to the lower right corner, where we point out that we don’t believe there will be much progress in this area by 2020. Eventually, maybe, but even though semantic interoperability appears to be within our grasp, it behaves more like the pot of gold under the rainbow. The closer you get to the rainbow, the farther away it appears.

What gives? ZapThink usually takes an optimistic perspective about the future of technology, but we’re decidedly pessimistic about the prospects for semantic interoperability. The problem as we see it comes down to the human understanding of language. All efforts to standardize meanings in order to facilitate semantic interoperability strip out vagueness and ambiguity from data, and presume a single, universal underlying grammar. After all, isn’t the goal to foster precise, unambiguous, and consistent communication between systems? The problem is, human communication is inherently vague, ambiguous, and relative. The way humans understand the world, the way we think, and the way we put our thoughts into language require both vagueness and ambiguity. Without them, we lose important aspects of meaning. Furthermore, how we structure our language is culturally and linguistically relative. As a result, current semantic interoperability efforts will be able to address a certain class of problems, but in the grand scheme of things, that class of problems is a relatively small subset of the types of communication we would prefer to automate between systems.

The Importance of Vagueness
Ironically, to discuss semantics we must first define our terms. A term is vague when it’s impossible to say whether the term applies in certain circumstances, for example, “my face is red.” Just how red does it have to be before we’re sure it’s red? In contrast, a term is ambiguous when it’s possible to interpret it in more than one way. For example, “I’m going to a bank” might mean that I’m going to a financial institution or to the side of a river.

Vagueness leads to knotty problems in philosophy that impact our ability to provide semantic interoperability. So, let’s go back to philosophy class, and study the sorites paradox. If you have a heap of sand and you take away a single grain, do you still have a heap of sand? Certainly. OK, repeat the process. Clearly, when you get down to a single grain of sand remaining, you no longer have a heap. So, when did the heap cease to be a heap?

Philosophers and linguists have been arguing over how to solve the sorites paradox for over a century now (yes, I know, they should find something more useful to do with their time). One answer: put your foot down and establish a precise boundary. 1,000 or more grains of sand are a heap, but 999 or less are not. Our computers will have no problem with such a resolution to the paradox, but it doesn’t accurately represent what we really mean by a heap. After all, if 1,000 grains constitutes a heap, wouldn’t 999? Central to the meaning of the term “heap” is its inherent vagueness.

Another solution: yes, there is some number of grains of sand where a heap ceases to be a heap, but we can’t know what it is. This resolution might satisfy some philosophers, but it doesn’t help our computers make sense out of our language. A third approach: instead of considering “is a heap” and “isn’t a heap” as the only two possible values, define a spectrum of intermediary values, or perhaps a continuum of values. The computer scientists are likely to be happy with this answer, as it lends itself to fuzzy logic: the statement “this pile of sand is a heap” might be, say, 40% true. Yes, we can do our fuzzy logic math now, but we’ve still lost some fundamental elements of meaning.

To bring back our natural language-based understanding of the sorites paradox, let’s step away from an overly analytical approach to the problem and try to look at the paradox from a human perspective. How, for example, would a seven-year-old describe the heap of sand as you take away a grain of sand at a time? They might answer, “well, it’s a smaller heap” or “it’s kinda a heap” or “it’s a little heap” or “it’s not really a heap,” etc. Such expressions are clearly not precise. Our computers wouldn’t be able to make much sense out of them. But these simple, even childish expressions are how people really speak and how people truly understand vagueness.

The important takeaway here is that vagueness isn’t a property relegated to heaps and blushing faces. It’s a ubiquitous property of virtually all human communication, even within the business context. Take for example an insurance policy. Insurance policies have a number of properties (policy holder, underwriter, insured property, deductible, etc.) and relationships to other business entities (policy application, underwriting documentation, claims forms, etc.) Now let’s add or take away individual properties and relationships from our canonical understanding of an insurance policy one at a time. Is it still a policy? Clearly, if we take away everything that makes a policy a policy then it’s no longer a policy. But if we take away a single property, we’re likely to say it’s still a policy. So where do we draw the line? If philosophers and linguists haven’t solved this problem in over a century, don’t expect your semantic interoperability tool to make much headway either.

The Problem of Linguistic Relativity
Another century-long battle in the world of linguistics is the fray over linguistic relativity vs. linguistic universality. Linguistic relativity is the position that language affects how speakers see their world, and by extension, how they think. In the other corner is Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, the linguistic theory that grammar is hardwired into the brain, and hence universal across all peoples regardless of their language or their culture. Theoretical work on a universal grammar has led to dramatic advances in natural language translation, and we all get to use and appreciate Google Translate and its brethren as a result. But while Google Translate is a miraculous tool indeed (especially for us Star Trek fans who marveled at the Universal Translator), it doesn’t take a polyglot to realize that the state of the art for such technology still leaves much to be desired.

Linguistic relativity, however, goes at the heart of the semantic interoperability challenge. Take for example, one of today’s most useful semantic standards: the Resource Description Framework (RDF). RDF is a metadata data model intended for making statements about resources (in particular, Web-based resources) in the form of subject-predicate-object expressions. For example, you might be able to express the statement “ZapThink wrote this ZapFlash” in the triplet consisting of “ZapThink” (the subject); “wrote” (the predicate); and “this ZapFlash” (the object). Take this basic triplet building block and you can build semantic webs of arbitrary complexity, with the eventual goal of describing the relationships among all business entities within a particular business context.

The problem with the approach RDF takes, however, is that the subject-predicate-object structure is Eurocentric. Non-European languages (and hence, non-European speakers) don’t necessarily think in sentences that follow this structure. And furthermore, this problem isn’t new. In fact, the research into this phenomenon dates back to the 1940s, with the work of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf conducted linguistic research among the Hopi and other Native American peoples, and thus established an empirical basis for linguistic relativity. The illustration below comes from one of his seminal papers on the subject:



In the graphic above, Whorf compares a simple sentence, “I clean it with a ramrod,” where “it” refers to a gun, in English and Shawnee. The English sentence predictably follows the subject-predicate-object format that RDF leverages. The Shawnee translation, however, translates literally to “dry space/interior of hole/by motion of tool or instrument.” Not only is there no one-to-one correspondence between parts of speech across the two sentences, but the entire context of the expression is different. If you were in the unenviable position of establishing RDF-based semantic interoperability between, say, a British business and a Shawnee business, you’d find RDF far too culturally specific to rise to the challenge.

The ZapThink Take
We have tools for semantic interoperability today, of course – but all such tools require the human step of configuring or training the tool to understand the properties and relationships among entities. Once you’ve trained the tool, it’s possible to automate many semantic interactions. But to get this process started, we must get together in a room with the people we want to communicate with and hammer out the meanings of the terms we’d like to use.

This human component to semantic interoperability actually dates to the Stone Age. How did we do business in the Stone Age? Say your tribe was on the coast, so you had fish. You were getting tired of fish, so you and your tribemates decided to pack up some fish and bring the bundle to the next village where they had fruit. You showed up at the village market, only you had no common language. So what did you do? You held up some fish, pointed to some fruit, grunted, and waved your hands. If you established a basis of communication, you conducted business, and went home with some fruit. If not, then you went home empty handed (or you pulled out your clubs and attacked, but that’s another story). Cut to the 21st century, and little has changed. People still have to get together and establish a basis of communication as human beings in order to facilitate semantic interoperability. But fully automating such interoperability is as close as the next rainbow.

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise. As president of Intellyx, Mr. Bloomberg brings his years of thought leadership in the areas of Cloud Computing, Enterprise Architecture, and Service-Oriented Architecture to a global clientele of business executives, architects, software vendors, and Cloud service providers looking to achieve technology-enabled business agility across their organizations and for their customers. His latest book, The Agile Architecture Revolution (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), sets the stage for Mr. Bloomberg’s groundbreaking Agile Architecture vision.

Mr. Bloomberg is perhaps best known for his twelve years at ZapThink, where he created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) SOA course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, the leading SOA advisory and analysis firm, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011. He now runs the successor to the LZA program, the Bloomberg Agile Architecture Course, around the world.

Mr. Bloomberg is a frequent conference speaker and prolific writer. He has published over 500 articles, spoken at over 300 conferences, Webinars, and other events, and has been quoted in the press over 1,400 times as the leading expert on agile approaches to architecture in the enterprise.

Mr. Bloomberg’s previous book, Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, 2006, coauthored with Ron Schmelzer), is recognized as the leading business book on Service Orientation. He also co-authored the books XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996).

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting).

@ThingsExpo Stories
Internet-of-Things discussions can end up either going down the consumer gadget rabbit hole or focused on the sort of data logging that industrial manufacturers have been doing forever. However, in fact, companies today are already using IoT data both to optimize their operational technology and to improve the experience of customer interactions in novel ways. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Gordon Haff, Red Hat Technology Evangelist, will share examples from a wide range of industries – includin...
The WebRTC Summit New York, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, announces that its Call for Papers is now open. Topics include all aspects of improving IT delivery by eliminating waste through automated business models leveraging cloud technologies. WebRTC Summit is co-located with 20th International Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo. WebRTC is the future of browser-to-browser communications, and continues to make inroads into the traditional, difficult, plug-in web co...
"We build IoT infrastructure products - when you have to integrate different devices, different systems and cloud you have to build an application to do that but we eliminate the need to build an application. Our products can integrate any device, any system, any cloud regardless of protocol," explained Peter Jung, Chief Product Officer at Pulzze Systems, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Amazon has gradually rolled out parts of its IoT offerings in the last year, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to optimizing their back-end AWS offerings, Amazon is laying the ground work to be a major force in IoT – especially in the connected home and office. Amazon is extending its reach by building on its dominant Cloud IoT platform, its Dash Button strategy, recently announced Replenishment Services, the Echo/Alexa voice recognition control platform, the 6-7 strategic...
According to Forrester Research, every business will become either a digital predator or digital prey by 2020. To avoid demise, organizations must rapidly create new sources of value in their end-to-end customer experiences. True digital predators also must break down information and process silos and extend digital transformation initiatives to empower employees with the digital resources needed to win, serve, and retain customers.
We're entering the post-smartphone era, where wearable gadgets from watches and fitness bands to glasses and health aids will power the next technological revolution. With mass adoption of wearable devices comes a new data ecosystem that must be protected. Wearables open new pathways that facilitate the tracking, sharing and storing of consumers’ personal health, location and daily activity data. Consumers have some idea of the data these devices capture, but most don’t realize how revealing and...
IoT solutions exploit operational data generated by Internet-connected smart “things” for the purpose of gaining operational insight and producing “better outcomes” (for example, create new business models, eliminate unscheduled maintenance, etc.). The explosive proliferation of IoT solutions will result in an exponential growth in the volume of IoT data, precipitating significant Information Governance issues: who owns the IoT data, what are the rights/duties of IoT solutions adopters towards t...
Whether your IoT service is connecting cars, homes, appliances, wearable, cameras or other devices, one question hangs in the balance – how do you actually make money from this service? The ability to turn your IoT service into profit requires the ability to create a monetization strategy that is flexible, scalable and working for you in real-time. It must be a transparent, smoothly implemented strategy that all stakeholders – from customers to the board – will be able to understand and comprehe...
Complete Internet of Things (IoT) embedded device security is not just about the device but involves the entire product’s identity, data and control integrity, and services traversing the cloud. A device can no longer be looked at as an island; it is a part of a system. In fact, given the cross-domain interactions enabled by IoT it could be a part of many systems. Also, depending on where the device is deployed, for example, in the office building versus a factory floor or oil field, security ha...
An IoT product’s log files speak volumes about what’s happening with your products in the field, pinpointing current and potential issues, and enabling you to predict failures and save millions of dollars in inventory. But until recently, no one knew how to listen. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Dan Gettens, Chief Research Officer at OnProcess, discussed recent research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and OnProcess Technology, where MIT created a new, breakthrough analytics model for s...
In his general session at 19th Cloud Expo, Manish Dixit, VP of Product and Engineering at Dice, discussed how Dice leverages data insights and tools to help both tech professionals and recruiters better understand how skills relate to each other and which skills are in high demand using interactive visualizations and salary indicator tools to maximize earning potential. Manish Dixit is VP of Product and Engineering at Dice. As the leader of the Product, Engineering and Data Sciences team at D...
"We're a cybersecurity firm that specializes in engineering security solutions both at the software and hardware level. Security cannot be an after-the-fact afterthought, which is what it's become," stated Richard Blech, Chief Executive Officer at Secure Channels, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
In this strange new world where more and more power is drawn from business technology, companies are effectively straddling two paths on the road to innovation and transformation into digital enterprises. The first path is the heritage trail – with “legacy” technology forming the background. Here, extant technologies are transformed by core IT teams to provide more API-driven approaches. Legacy systems can restrict companies that are transitioning into digital enterprises. To truly become a lead...
Video experiences should be unique and exciting! But that doesn’t mean you need to patch all the pieces yourself. Users demand rich and engaging experiences and new ways to connect with you. But creating robust video applications at scale can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Zohar Babin, Vice President of Platform, Ecosystem and Community at Kaltura, discussed how VPaaS enables you to move fast, creating scalable video experiences that reach your aud...
"Once customers get a year into their IoT deployments, they start to realize that they may have been shortsighted in the ways they built out their deployment and the key thing I see a lot of people looking at is - how can I take equipment data, pull it back in an IoT solution and show it in a dashboard," stated Dave McCarthy, Director of Products at Bsquare Corporation, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
What happens when the different parts of a vehicle become smarter than the vehicle itself? As we move toward the era of smart everything, hundreds of entities in a vehicle that communicate with each other, the vehicle and external systems create a need for identity orchestration so that all entities work as a conglomerate. Much like an orchestra without a conductor, without the ability to secure, control, and connect the link between a vehicle’s head unit, devices, and systems and to manage the ...
IoT is rapidly changing the way enterprises are using data to improve business decision-making. In order to derive business value, organizations must unlock insights from the data gathered and then act on these. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Hoffman, Vice President at EastBanc Technologies, and Peter Shashkin, Head of Development Department at EastBanc Technologies, discussed how one organization leveraged IoT, cloud technology and data analysis to improve customer experiences and effici...
Everyone knows that truly innovative companies learn as they go along, pushing boundaries in response to market changes and demands. What's more of a mystery is how to balance innovation on a fresh platform built from scratch with the legacy tech stack, product suite and customers that continue to serve as the business' foundation. In his General Session at 19th Cloud Expo, Michael Chambliss, Head of Engineering at ReadyTalk, discussed why and how ReadyTalk diverted from healthy revenue and mor...
The 20th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Containers, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal ...
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to simplify and streamline our lives by automating routine tasks that distract us from our goals. This promise is based on the ubiquitous deployment of smart, connected devices that link everything from industrial control systems to automobiles to refrigerators. Unfortunately, comparatively few of the devices currently deployed have been developed with an eye toward security, and as the DDoS attacks of late October 2016 have demonstrated, this oversight can ...