Department of Defense Adopts a Philosopher’s Applied Ontology


When you think of ontology, the branch of metaphysics concerned with what kinds of things there are, what probably comes to mind is talk of universals and particulars or types and tokens. But perhaps you should be thinking of the “precision mission desired outcomes” of “the nation’s warfighters and intelligence professionals.”

That’s because applied ontology, which brings philosophy and information science together to systematically classify the types of objects of various practical technological domains (including medical informatics, finance, intelligence, for example) is being used by the military.

Philosopher Barry Smith (Buffalo), a pioneer in the field, has over the past few decades developed what is known as Basic Formal Ontology (see here and here).

Just recently, the United States Department of Defense (Dod) has directed all of its agencies to make use of Basic Formal Ontology and one of its extensions, Common Core Ontology, as part of its “baseline standards”.

A DoD memo explains:

Ontologies are used across the DoD, Intelligence Community (IC) and with other software applications to enable data sharing, insights, and interoperability across a complex network of global and disparate data and information systems. Most of these ontologies, however, were created in isolation or based on incompatible principles, limiting sustainability and interoperability opportunities. Moreover, they are often tied to existing data sources, which prove inflexible and unscalable when applied to new data streams.  

By implementing the new ontology standards, the entire DoD “will realize significant gains in data interoperability, federated search and discovery, decreased analytic timelines, and better cost efficiency.”

A press release offers an example:

“Ontology creates data descriptions that everyone can use,” says Smith… “It’s nearly impossible to join data derived from multiple sources without an ontology.” Smith says engineers working on separate pieces of the fuselage for the Airbus 380 in 2006 had conflicting ways of representing holes in their respective computer-aided design packages. The discrepancy meant that hundreds of miles of wires that had to be threaded through the plane’s airframe couldn’t reach the necessary connection points. Being just a few millimeters short of the mark required $6 billion to correct.

The DoD’s decision about the new standards was made this past January.

(via John Beverley)

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David Austin
1 month ago

Given the size of the DoD budget, and the purposes for which it is spent, choice of an ontology in the relevant sense will have profound practical consequences. Which categories a system allows one to consider will determine what information is detectable and will thus constrain analyses of data. That can helpfully increase efficiency; it can also be disastrously limiting and distorting. Decisions about which categories to recognize tend also to be frozen in record-creating and -keeping software.

Those interested (and/or puzzled) might benefit from the very lucid critiques and expositions by Gary Merrill (one of my first and best logic teachers):

Gary H. Merrill, “Ontological realism: Methodology or misdirection?,” Applied Ontology v5 n2, (2010) 79-108, DOI: 10.3233/AO-2010-0076.

Reply from Smith et al:
Barry Smith and Werner Ceusters, “Ontological realism: A methodology for coordinated evolution of scientific ontologies,” Applied Ontology v5 nos3-4 (2010) 139-188, DOI: 10.3233/AO-2010-0079.

Rejoinder from Merrill:
Gary H. Merrill, “Realism and reference ontologies: Considerations, reflections and problems,” Applied Ontology, v5 nos3-4 (2010) 189-221, DOI: 10.3233/AO-2010-0080

(exchange also mentioned at https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/524764)

Gary H. Merrill, “Ontology, Ontologies, and Science,” Topoi v30 (2011) 71–83, DOI: 10.1007/s11245-011-9091-x.

Other relevant work by Merrill can be discovered via scholar.google.com with some via
philpapers.org.

Adam Hodgkin
Adam Hodgkin
1 month ago

This sounds like an important recognition of a problem. Would be encouraging step if a similar approach could be used, for example, with the National Health Service in the UK

Barry Smith
Reply to  Adam Hodgkin
1 month ago

In fact, the work for the DoD grew out of 20 years of work – which still continues – in biomedical ontology.