Saturday, September 24, 2011

A meeting of the minds on mental ontologies

We had an incredibly useful meeting this week at UT which brought together several of the groups that are currently working on different ontologies related to mental function:

A major goal of the meeting was for us all to get familiar with Janna's work on the Emotion Ontology, since it's the newest kid on the block. In addition, since Janna is a card-carrying ontologist, I particularly wanted to get comments from her about the structure of our new Cognitive Atlas OWL ontology.  

The major challenge for all of us is how we interoperate while still addressing the needs of our individual projects.  Three of the ontologies (Cognitive Atlas, CogPO, and NEMO) have parallel representations of cognitive tasks, which have different uses in each case and different semantics; in the end we would like to have a single ontology that represents all of these, but until then our approach will be to identify (automatically, we hope) the matching tasks between our databases and expose a translation table that will map the task identifiers between the three databases.  We also worked on aligning the annotation features that each of the databases uses in our OWL representations, to make integration more straightforward in the future.

Much of our discussion centered around the kinds of philosophical issues that are at the heart of why we created the Cognitive Atlas, namely the question of whether and how ontology creation can be community based (i.e., the "bazaar" approach, after Eric Raymond) versus being driven by a single small group of individuals (the "cathedral" approach).  The Cognitive Atlas follows the Wikipedia-like approach of allowing (indeed, encouraging) and capturing disagreement, whereas the other projects are all more heavily driven by small groups of individuals and attempt to capture a single scheme with great clarity.  Both approaches have their advantages, and one of our major challenges is to figure out how to bridge the two.  In the near future we will be attempting to import the Emotion Ontology into the Cognitive Atlas knowledge base, which will provide us with our first test regarding interoperability between these knowledge bases.

We spent a bit of time discussing the current structure of the Cognitive Atlas from the standpoint of the hardcore ontologists.  One of the issues that was noted was the relatively flat structure of the knowledge base at present; that is, there are lots of concepts but relatively few relations between them.  That is evolving, but it highlights the need for more action on the relations side.  Another issue that is more difficult is the need for less ambiguous definitions. Right now, the definitions in Cognitive Atlas are often quite ambiguous, such that it would not be possible for a person to uniquely identify which concept was the correct one in a particular situation.  The major problem here is that the definitions are being written by domain experts, not by ontologists, but we are hopeful that as we continue to interact with the ontology community, we can develop better definitions and provide better guidance to our users as to best practices for unambiguous definitions.

Overall this was a great meeting and I'm looking forward to the next one! It's really exciting to see so many groups interested in cognitive ontologies, and to see us all working together so closely.