Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Darren Anstee, Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Pat Romanski, Jeev Trika

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
Data is an unusual currency; it is not restricted by the same transactional limitations as money or people. In fact, the more that you leverage your data across multiple business use cases, the more valuable it becomes to the organization. And the same can be said about the organization’s analytics. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Bill Schmarzo, CTO for the Big Data Practice at EMC, will introduce a methodology for capturing, enriching and sharing data (and analytics) across the organizati...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Bsquare has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. For more than two decades, Bsquare has helped its customers extract business value from a broad array of physical assets by making them intelligent, connecting them, and using the data they generate to optimize business processes.
SYS-CON Events has announced today that Roger Strukhoff has been named conference chair of Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo 2016 Silicon Valley. The 19th Cloud Expo and 6th @ThingsExpo will take place on November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. "The Internet of Things brings trillions of dollars of opportunity to developers and enterprise IT, no matter how you measure it," stated Roger Strukhoff. "More importantly, it leverages the power of devices and the Interne...
19th Cloud Expo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy. Meanwhile, 94% of enterpri...
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 lea...
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.
Businesses are struggling to manage the information flow and interactions between all of these new devices and things jumping on their network, and the apps and IT systems they control. The data businesses gather is only helpful if they can do something with it. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Witeck, Principal Technology Strategist at Citrix, will discuss how different the impact of IoT will be for large businesses, expanding how IoT will allow large organizations to make their legacy ap...
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, will discuss how VPaaS enables you to move fast, creating scalable video experiences that reach your...
In his keynote at 18th Cloud Expo, Andrew Keys, Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise, provided an overview of the evolution of the Internet and the Database and the future of their combination – the Blockchain. Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life sett...
Cloud computing is being adopted in one form or another by 94% of enterprises today. Tens of billions of new devices are being connected to The Internet of Things. And Big Data is driving this bus. An exponential increase is expected in the amount of information being processed, managed, analyzed, and acted upon by enterprise IT. This amazing is not part of some distant future - it is happening today. One report shows a 650% increase in enterprise data by 2020. Other estimates are even higher....
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM Company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. SoftLayer, an IBM Company, provides cloud infrastructure as a service from a growing number of data centers and network points of presence around the world. SoftLayer’s customers range from Web startups to global enterprises.
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 19th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devices - comp...
One of biggest questions about Big Data is “How do we harness all that information for business use quickly and effectively?” Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or spatial technology is about more than making maps, but adding critical context and meaning to data of all types, coming from all different channels – even sensors. In his session at @ThingsExpo, William (Bill) Meehan, director of utility solutions for Esri, will take a closer look at the current state of spatial technology and ar...
The vision of a connected smart home is becoming reality with the application of integrated wireless technologies in devices and appliances. The use of standardized and TCP/IP networked wireless technologies in line-powered and battery operated sensors and controls has led to the adoption of radios in the 2.4GHz band, including Wi-Fi, BT/BLE and 802.15.4 applied ZigBee and Thread. This is driving the need for robust wireless coexistence for multiple radios to ensure throughput performance and th...
Fifty billion connected devices and still no winning protocols standards. HTTP, WebSockets, MQTT, and CoAP seem to be leading in the IoT protocol race at the moment but many more protocols are getting introduced on a regular basis. Each protocol has its pros and cons depending on the nature of the communications. Does there really need to be only one protocol to rule them all? Of course not. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Matthieu, co-founder and CTO of Octoblu, walk you through how Oct...
What are the new priorities for the connected business? First: businesses need to think differently about the types of connections they will need to make – these span well beyond the traditional app to app into more modern forms of integration including SaaS integrations, mobile integrations, APIs, device integration and Big Data integration. It’s important these are unified together vs. doing them all piecemeal. Second, these types of connections need to be simple to design, adapt and configure...
“We're a global managed hosting provider. Our core customer set is a U.S.-based customer that is looking to go global,” explained Adam Rogers, Managing Director at ANEXIA, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
Is your aging software platform suffering from technical debt while the market changes and demands new solutions at a faster clip? It’s a bold move, but you might consider walking away from your core platform and starting fresh. ReadyTalk did exactly that. In his General Session at 19th Cloud Expo, Michael Chambliss, Head of Engineering at ReadyTalk, will discuss why and how ReadyTalk diverted from healthy revenue and over a decade of audio conferencing product development to start an innovati...
In his general session at 18th Cloud Expo, Lee Atchison, Principal Cloud Architect and Advocate at New Relic, discussed cloud as a ‘better data center’ and how it adds new capacity (faster) and improves application availability (redundancy). The cloud is a ‘Dynamic Tool for Dynamic Apps’ and resource allocation is an integral part of your application architecture, so use only the resources you need and allocate /de-allocate resources on the fly.
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 ...