Professor David Toman of the University of Waterloo's Cheriton School of Computer Science recently completed a sabbatical visit at the CSIR's knowledge reasoning and representation research group. His visit was funded by the National Research Fund's Knowledge Interchange and Collaboration Programme and supports the CSIR's objectives to foster and maintain research and development collaboration with local and international universities.
Professor David Toman of the University of Waterloo's Cheriton School of Computer Science.
Toman also gave a lecture at the CSIR titled 'Ontology-based data access' in which he explained the technical aspects of how to enrich data with background knowledge relating to a particular domain. "It's all about getting a better answer to one's query," he explains.
Ontologies and knowledge representation enable the development of semantic technologies (semantic pertains to meaning in language), by which meaning is encoded to make it possible for people and machines to understand, share and reason using common knowledge. This differs greatly from hard-coded rigid information used in traditional information technology. For the latter, queries can retrieve only facts that have been captured and stored, but do not make connections or inferences (deriving logical conclusions) to come up with additional information.
This is not an easy field as the computational problems require a good understanding; it therefore remains a field for postgraduates. "Undergraduates often do not have enough background and training to tackle this," Toman confirms.
Fortunately for those users of systems which benefit from ontologies and knowledge representation, these techniques remain hidden behind a sympathetically accessible front-end.
The practical application of ontologies is coming to the fore, for example, in Italy where the banking sector has put a technological toe into the water to try it out with a view to cost savings. "Ontologies in the medical domain are also quite advanced," confirms Toman. The doyen of medical ontologies, Barry Smith, visited the CSIR in 2010 to deliver a lecture on his research.
Toman confirms the value of his stay at the CSIR, "It was a good time for planning future projects and sharing research findings." His sojourn in Pretoria was complemented by a visit to the University of KwaZulu-Natal where Dr Marijke Keet, another close collaborator, is working.
He hopes to return to South Africa in the near future, pending future developments and partnerships.