Archive: May 13, 2003

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Emergent Properties

Tuesday,  05/13/03  12:56 PM

Let's talk about Emergent properties of information, vs. explicit properties, shall we?

This came up recently when we were talking about metadata, and how it is terrifically useful as an emergent property developed by a metadata generator (Google or Technorati), and terrifically inconvenient as an explicit property developed by the content generator (RDF coded by humans).

Well, here's another example of the same thing in another domain: Artificial Intelligence.  Marvin Minsky says "AI has been brain-dead since the 1970s".  This is a terrific Freudian slip, as well as metadata confusion.  { Marvin is one of the true pioneers of AI, by the way, and one of my heroes. }  Read on...

First, perhaps a brief digression is in order.  An emergent property of something is an attribute which "emerges" from the whole, a higher-level thing which summarizes lower-level things.  For example, this post is philosophical.  No one letter or word or sentence or even paragraph contains the attribute "philosophical", that property emerges from the whole.  If I enclosed the whole post with tags like this <philosophy>...</philosophy> that would be an explicit property; something I explicitly added (and the "<philosophy>" tags would be metadata). 

Going back to AI, Marvin says AI can't deal with concepts like "water is wet".  In this case, wet is an emergent property of water; no one water molecule has this property, but a bunch of molecules in liquid form together do.  And in the physical world there is no way to add metadata - you can't "tag" liquid with a property like "wet".  But here's where I respectfully part ways from Marvin.  Emergent properties like "wet" can be determined, usually by analogy - and AI has made huge strides in this sort of processing.  It is just like Google can determine that a website about water is "wet" by examining all the links to the site ("this site is wet"), even if the site itself does not mention wetness (or "know" that it is wet in any way).

Marvin goes on to say expert systems based on rules and heuristics have 'reached a dead-end'.  This is exactly right!  But this doesn't mean AI has stopped - it has redirected...  Using rules and heuristics is akin to using explicit metadata, an approach which is inherently limited.  Using inference engines to determine emergent properties is more powerful and actually easier.  In a way, this is a "brain dead" approach, because it doesn't require that a lot of effort be invested in creating metadata the way rules/heuristic approaches do.  Instead, the effort is invested in analysis of the information to synthesize the meta-information.  So Marvin is dead right - AI is "brain dead" - but not in the way he meant.  It certainly doesn't mean progress has stopped, quite the contrary.  Google is a shining example of AI in action.

And speaking of Google, consider The Semantic Web (note capital letters).  Some people think labeling everything on every web page with metadata will make searching and managing the information on the web easier.  Wrong.  This is just like putting <philosophy> tags around this article.  If this is philosophy, then that's because it is an emergent property of what I wrote, not because I explicitly labeled it as such.  What if I labeled it <sports> or <art>?  That wouldn't make it either one (well, you might consider it art, but that would be a matter of opinion, not a clearly labeled fact.  And that's the point!)  Instead of explicitly attaching metadata to everything, the web has evolved superior ways of implicitly computing emergent properties, exemplified by search engines like Google and Technorati.  Not only is this much easier - everything doesn't have to be categorized up front - but it works much better, because the emergent properties do not have to be predetermined in advance.

This same emergent vs. explicit distinction comes up in image processing, which my little company Aperio does all day long.  When you're trying to recognize patterns in images, you can do it two ways.  One way is to make a list of possible "features" images can have, things like shapes, colors, textures, relationships to one another, etc.  Then you catalog all the features of a particular image explicitly by way of characterizing that image.  The other way is to compute emergent properties of the image dynamically, and use them to characterize the image.  This is conceptually simpler and actually easier, because an exhaustive list of potentially useful features does not have to be compiled up front.  It does require clever algorithms for computing the emergent properties, which is where Aperio has some cool ideas...

Whenever you read about people who want to add metadata to information to make properties explicit, be skeptical!  There are generally better ways to accomplish the same thing by computing emergent properties from the information itself.



Tuesday,  05/13/03  10:32 PM

Precelebration dept: Beijing: SARS under control.  If only.  Somehow it would be much more reassuring if they were worried and taking the potential for new cases seriously.  The old communist "deny any bad news" meme is still active in China.

Wired is running a great series: 30 spaces for the 21st century.  So far they've published Atlas Space, Voice Space, Office Space, Home Space, Bush Space, and Protest Space, with more to come.  Check it out!

Are you hungry?  How about some alphabet soup?  Digest XBL vs. XSLT, a post on Surfin' Safari that speaks eloquently to the complexity of these new ways to build web pages.  HTML I could explain to my 9-year old daughter.  This I can't even explain to myself.  Does that make it bad?  Yes.

Scott Hanselman ponders The Myth of .NET Purity.  Ironically I find this sort of article reassuring; it is a lot easier for me to deal with .NET as yet another API with potentially leaky abstractions than as a perfect solution to all the world's problems. [ via Scoble, who isn't pulling any punches now that he's in Redmond... ]

The color of money dept: $20 bill gets facelift.  The U.S. will *still* have the ugliest currency in the world, but it's a start.

Speaking of money, here's some interesting news in payment technology: Nokia turns phones into credit cards.  I've been expecting this, why should every store have a phone-based credit card authorization terminal when every credit card user has a cell phone?  I believe this could be the future.

And speaking of payment technology, PayPal's growth continues; Scott Loftesness reports they now have 28M members, and are growing at 45,000 new members EVERY DAY.  Wow.

{ When I think of numbers of people, I use a visual: 45,000 people is a sellout at Dodger Stadium.  That is a lot of people! }

And speaking of online payment processors, IPayment had the year's first successful IPO, up 31% on the first day despite last minute bogusness courtesy of their underwriter Bear Stearns.

Tim Oren has a fascinating post: No Exit: When Venture Capital Isn't Right.  This is a great survey of how VC funds work, and what types of investments fit their "model".  [ via Andrew Anker ]  My two takeaways:

  1. The company must have either a good IPO story in a field which has an IPO track record, or a good acquisition story in a field which has big buyers.
  2. The company must be able to consume a significant amount of capital and deliver a potential 10X return on this capital within about five years.

When ads collide with content dept: Check out this screen shot (click thumbnail).  An interesting article about e-paper, juxtaposed with an ad for the tablet PC, another form of "e-paper"...

CalPundit has Fun with Statistics; the top ten mistakes that infest day-to-day reporting of statistical information.  #3 is my favorite because it is subtle: correlation vs. causality.

Did you catch the Lakers / Spurs game last night?  Not really a good game, but a great finish.  The Lakers dug their way out of a deep 25-point hole and nearly pulled it out.  I sure expected Robert Horry to bury that trey at the buzzer.  Now the Lakers have two must-win games in a row.  They're being tested for sure!


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