Over 10 years ago, when peer-to-peer was an exciting and (through Napster) a liberating idea, I proposed the World Wide Molecular Matrix (Cambridge), (wikipedia) as a new approach to managing scientific information. It was bottom-up, semantic, and allowed scientists to share data as peers. It was ahead of the technology and ahead of the culture.
I also regularly listed tasks that a semi-artificially-intelligent chemical machine – the Scientists’ Amanuensis – could do, such as read the literature, find new information and compute the results and republish to the community. I ended with:
“pass a first year university chemistry exam”
That would be possible today – by the end of this year – we could feed past questions into the machine and devise heuristics, machine learning and regurgitation that would get a 40% pass mark. Most of the software was envisaged in the 1970’s in the Stanford and Harvard AI/Chemistry labs.
The main thing stopping us doing it today is that the exam papers are Copyright. And that most of published science is Copyright. And I am spending my time fighting publishers rather than building the system. Oh dear!
Humans by themselves cannot solve the problem – the volume is too great – 1500 new scientific papers each day. And machines can’t solve it, as they have no judgment. Ask them to search for X and they’ll often find 0 hits or 100,000.
But a human-machine symbiosis can do wonderfully. Its time has now come – and epitomised by the SOCIAM project which involves Southampton and Edinburgh (and others). It’s aim is to build human-machine communities. I have a close lead as Dave Murray-Rust (son) is part of the project and asked if The Content Mine could provide some synergy/help for a meeting today in Oxford. I can’t be there, and suggested that Jenny Molloy could (and I think she’ll meet in the bar after she has fed her mosquitoes).
There’s great synergy already. The world of social machines relies on trust – that various collaborators provide bits pf the solution and that the whole is larger than the parts. Academic in-fighting and meaningless metrics destroy progress in the modern world – the only thing worse is publishers’ lawyers. The Content Mine is happy to collaborate with anyone – The more you use what we can provide the better for everyone.
Dave and I have talked about possible SOCIAM/ContentMine projects. It’s hard to design them because a key part is human enthusiasm and willingness to help build the first examples. So it’s got to be something where there is a need, where the technology is close to the surface, where people want to share and where the results will wow the world. At present that looks like bioscience – and CM will be putting out result feeds of various sorts and seeing who is interested. We think that evolutionary biology, especially of dinosaurs, but also of interesting or threatened species , would resonate.
The technology is now so much better and more importantly so much better known. The culture is ready for social machines. We can output the results of searches and scrapings in JSON, link to DBPedia using RDF – reformat and repurpose using Xpath or CSS. The collaborations doesn’t need to be top-down – each partner says “here’s what we’ve got” and the others say “OK here’s how we glue it together”. The vocabularies in bioscience and good. We can use social media such as Twitter – you don’t need to have an RDF schema to understand #tyrannosaurus_rex. One of the great things about species is that the binomial names are unique (unless you’re a taxonomist!) and that Wikipedia contains all the scientific knowledge we need.
There don’t seem to be any major problems . If it breaks we’ll add glue just as TimBL did for URLs in the early web. Referential and semantic integrity are not important in social machines – we can converge onto solutions. If people want to communicate they’ll evolve to the technology that works for them – it may not be formally correct but it will work most of the time. And for science that’s good enough (half the science in the literature is potentially flawed anyway).