by Ir. Aw Kong Koy
B.E. (Hons) Malaya, MIEM, P.Eng
A paper presented at the 7th International Conference on Thinking
Singapore, June 1 - 6 1997
Revised: May 16, 1999
Thinking processes require the management and processing of vast amounts of information. The human mind unfortunately is limited in its capabilities to manage, recall and sort information. However, computers are very adept in these tasks. Using computers to supplement the human thinking processes would be an obvious development for today.
This paper describes the "Multicentric Concept" that was developed to model the real world with all it complexities. The concept is implemented in a computer program called "MultiCentrix - The Multicentric Information Networking System." MultiCentrix supports the HTML document format and has a built-in HTML editor with information networking capabilities, a multimedia player and an image file viewer. List processing and the set theory are used extensively in the program.
The multicentric concept treats information as a dynamic commodity. Any piece of information can be selected as the centre of focus and all connected objects are dynamically arranged around it. This provides a bounded view of the world but within the program, the model of the world remains unbounded as any connected information can be selected as the new centre of focus. The information in the network database can also be viewed as information trees based on various relationships and any piece of information can be selected as the root. Further insights can be gained from the database through "relationship sorts", "in-situ filters", "relationship filters" and by finding the common sets in any list of information. A unique feature of the program is the ability to display the connections between any two pieces of information through multiple levels, i.e., remote connections. These are essential features of a computer aided thinking tool.
Dictionaries, directories, encyclopaedias, rules and regulations, web pages, etc. can all be organised within the program. These information can also be used as an online glossary thus promoting the shared language concept. The program lets the user view the information in ways not possible before.
Thinking processes require the management and processing of vast amounts of information. We cannot think in a vacuum. Our thinking is based on the information and knowledge that we possess and the inter-relationships between them. For example, critical thinking was defined by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking as:
"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action".
The information processing used during thinking includes:
- Visualising, and
Human beings are quite accomplished at certain thinking skills. We are good at conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesizing and evaluating information. We are also good at recognising patterns.
Computers on the other hand are acknowledged to be better at computation, storage, sorting, recall and filtering information. This paper describes a computer aided thinking software developed by the author that uses these capabilities to assist humans in their thinking.
Computer aided thinking must not be confused with artificial intelligence.
According to Thinking Software N.Y., USA
"Artificial Intelligence is computer software that performs tasks we would consider intelligent if done by a person. This includes giving expert advice, understanding natural language, speaking like a human, and recognizing complex patterns like handwriting. The 3 most useful AI Programs today are Expert Systems, Natural Language, and Neural Networks. "
The aim of artificial intelligence is to teach computers to think whereas in computer aided thinking, the aim is to use the processing powers of the computers to supplement and enhance the human thinking by: -
Computer aided thinking does not provide us with a solution, we have to find the solution within ourselves. Artificial intelligence can be envisaged as a converging process, whereby the system tries to converge to the possible solutions. Computer aided thinking, on the other hand is both convergent and divergent. It allows us to explore our knowledge space and at the same time converge at any particular topic or issue.
- recalling and showing us information related to the issues involved,
- sorting and filtering the information based on the connections established and,
- thereby help us gain insights into the issues
The Creativity Home Page by Cave, Charles lists the following computer tools among others as creative thinking tools.
a) Text based outliners
- Most Word processors
- Some presentation software
b) Visual Outliners
- Mind Mapper, and
- Corkboard (Three by Five)
c) Idea processing
- Axon Idea Processor
d) Questioning Programs
- Idea Fisher
- Creative Whack Pack
In a broad sense, these software and other personal productivity tools such as spreadsheets and databases do assist humans in their thinking processes. The use of computers as cognitive tools has been discussed by Martyn Wild.
Notably, a vital ingredient missing from these software is the management of information. Without the ability to store and manage information, we are often forced to start afresh with each new problem.
We need to understand the nature of information before we can develop computer programs to aid us in our thinking. Concepts of critical thinking, logical thinking, creative thinking and mind mapping can also be incorporated where appropriate.
The real world is very complex
The real world is very complex and as such it is very difficult, if not impossible, to capture information accurately and comprehensively. Fig. 1 shows a network representation of information as objects interconnected together. This diagram may appear complex but is in really a simplistic representation of the real world.
The open systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1950; Boulding 1956) has been commended for its potential usefulness in "synthesizing and analyzing complexity" (Malhotra, 1993). Unfortunately it was also reported that few researchers have the tools or the ability to take into account all the various components that must be included in even a relatively simple open systems model (Hall, 1977:59).
Information is often arranged in hierarchical structures to help us understand it better.
Hierarchical structures are one of the key foundations of the sciences and our knowledge systems. It allows us to communicate at a higher order once we are familiar with the hierarchies. Hierarchical structures are represented in our classification systems for example the library systems and WTO tariff codes.
Unfortunately hierarchies represent the human understanding of the world which may not necessarily be accurate. A single hierarchy can also be self limiting as information may belong to multiple hierarchies. Library systems have been based on hierarchical systems and I understand they have realised the limitations and are moving away from single hierarchical systems.
Non hierarchical structures
Not everything can fit into a hierarchical structure. Certain things are loosely coupled or we may not understand the structure yet. In such a situation we have to treat the information as associated. Associations are much more difficult for us to remember because of the diversity and lack of order.
Hypertext systems as popularly used on the Internet support the non-hierarchical structure. To support structured web sites like Yahoo, InfoSeek and Excite uses external databases to deliver the web pages.
Interfaces are an essential part of systems. The various components of the systems, such as operating units, processes and procedures, interface with each other. In an interface we have a source and target, a transformation and also an output and input. Feedback loops are also very common in interfaces. Systems and interfaces are part of our world and must be understood.
Multiple relationships and hierarchies
Information does not always fit into a single structure or hierarchies, but they can belong to multiple hierarchies. There can also be multiple relationships between the various pieces of information. We therefore not only need to know that two pieces of information are connected but also how they are connected.
Information is often stored in multimedia format today. The multimedia format includes text, sound, graphics, animation, and video. New systems like the Microsoft activeX can handle spreadsheet files, CAD files, and other proprietary file formats.
Unfortunately computers still cannot handle smell, taste and touch.
To create a computer aided thinking system, we need a concept to model the real world with all its complexities. The multicentric concept was developed as an attempt to address such complexities.
In the Multicentric Concept
- Information is represented as objects.
- An object can represent anything that can be given a name, e.g., a concept, a person, an organisation, etc.
- An object can have more than one name and more than one description.
- All objects are equal.
- Objects are related to each other as groups and members (hierarchical structures) (see Fig 3.).
- Objects can also be associated with each other. (non hierarchical structures).
- Objects interface with each other. (see Fig 4. Interface Diagram)
- The connections between objects are also objects. (Links)
- Objects can be classified into themes or layers. (see Fig 5)
- Objects should be elemental (decomposed) so that they can be dynamically rearranged without losing context.
This concept is implemented in a computer program developed by the author called MultiCentrix - The Multicentric Information Networking System.
Essentially information is represented as a complex networked database within MultiCentrix.
The important features of MultiCentrix are the tools it provides for networking information, navigation through the database and the presentation of the various information to help us gain insights into the information.
Networking of Information
We can visit a city often and know several places in the city but we still get lost very easily. To know the city we need to study a map of the city. Similarly, with information, to understand it we need an information network and if one is not available we have to create one.
Like geographical maps, information network not only show us where the information is located or who has the information, it must also us show how the various information is connected and allow us to navigate the network. It allows us to see what is there and what is not there or missing. What is not there is just as important as what is there. Information networking provides an effective way for us to discover what is missing or what we don't know yet.
Unlike geographical maps that map information against a spatial framework, information networks are virtual, dynamic and multi dimensional. The intuitive way is to try to represent information networks graphically. Unfortunately, information networks are complex systems and complex systems are often counter-intuitive. An information network can consist of hundreds of thousands of objects that will become a spaghetti diagram if represented graphically.
In a complex information network, it may be necessary to classify the objects in themes and produce thematic information networks much like geographical information systems (GIS).
In thematic networks, only the selected themes are visible thus helping us focus on what are of interest to us.
MultiCentrix provides a wide range of information networking facilities including:
- Adding and editing of objects and object descriptions,
- Building and editing of hierarchies, associations, interfaces and links,
- Importing and exporting of objects,
- Importing of hierarchies, associations, interfaces, links and classes,
- Navigation facilities,
- Searching facilities,
- Filtering tools,
- A built-in HTML Editor with objects creation and networking capabilities, and
- Web farming facilities.
The Multicentric View
The multicentric views allow us to select any object as the centre of focus and have connected objects dynamically arranged around it. Any object can be selected as the new centre of focus.
An important feature of the multicentric view is that it allows us to see the link objects which describes the relationships between the object in focus and its connected objects.
The multicentric views provide us a bounded view of the world centred on one object at a time. An analogy can be drawn here with the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant. The ability of MultiCentrix to combine the "views" of all the blind men is the key for us to gain insights from information we have as we are essentially blind as far as the real world is concerned.
Within MultiCentrix however, the world is not bounded. We can view the information trees of any visible object.
The objects in the various lists can also be sorted based on the number of related objects. This provides a measure of the first order centrality of the objects in the list. Using the relationship filters, this sorted list can be further grouped to provide further insights.
Information trees allow us to look at the information as two dimensional networks although the information is stored within MultiCentrix as a complex network database.
MultiCentrix allows us to view the information trees based on the different types of relationships (hierarchical, non-hierarchical, interfaces and classes) with any object as the root object.
Combining the multicentric view with information trees allows us to see not only which information objects are connected to the object in focus but also additional information on all connected object.
An important function of information trees is that it allows us to traverse the complex information network.
When we have a list of objects, we want to understand the relationships of the objects in the list within itself and with other objects. Fig. 8 illustrates the concept of relationship filters.
MultiCentrix allows the user to filter the list through the various types of relationships and relationship filters are available in the multicentric view and during searching.
If we have a list of names and these names are mapped in our database, we can, for example, find out the various professions they represent, their alma mater, education levels, expertise, hobbies, etc. We may also find out who knows who within the list.
Finding common sets
When we have a list of information objects and we may want to find what is common among them. For example, we have a shopping list and would like to find out who can supply all the items in the list. This differs from relationship filters as relationship filters will tell you who can supply any items in the list and what items they can supply.
Items can be added or subtracted from our shopping list.
Relationship filters can in turn be applied to the common list.
Finding the connections between two objects through multiple levels.
When we have two pieces of information, two organisations or even two persons, we like to see if these two objects are in anyway connected. The connections may be remote, i.e., through third parties. MultiCentrix provides a facility for such a search where the user can define the number of levels to search.
Unlike the human brain, this search is exhaustive and all connections between the two objects based on the number of levels defined will be displayed. The search may produce a large number of irrelevant hits through some common objects. These objects can be excluded from the search and/or thematic filters applied.
This feature is very powerful. It provides us a unique way to view our information database. The search is however only possible after we have a substantial database of information which has been diligently mapped.
The resultant tree can be inverted for us to look at the connectivity from a different perspective. Similarly, any object in the tree can also be hoisted to be the root object and the connectivity seen from the perspective of this object.
H.G. Wells in "The Brain: Organization of the Modern World", 1940 said that
"An immense and ever-increasing wealth of knowledge is scattered about the world today; knowledge that would probably suffice to solve all the mighty difficulties of our age, but it is dispersed and unorganised. We need a sort of mental clearing house: a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared".
Dr. Edward de Bono (Lateral Thinking, 1970) said that
the purpose of thinking is to collect information and to make the best possible use of it.
The multicentric concept as implemented in MultiCentrix gives us a computer aided thinking tool for the collection and management of information and at the same time help us gain insights into the information. It is also a computer aided mental clearing house.
It is left to us to make the best possible use of it!
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