UB workshop to address human and machine capabilities

Barry Smith

Barry Smith will be a panelist for the workshop "Capabilities: Human and Machine," which will discuss the place for capability within the general framework of ontology.

Release Date: April 4, 2018

“Functions have been well studied. We have good definitions and we know how to deal with them. Capabilities, on the other hand, have been studied practically by engineers, but not theoretically; so their work still lacks the starting point for ontology.”
Barry Smith, director, National Center for Ontological Research
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Farhad Ameri, an associate professor of Manufacturing Engineering and Technology at Texas State University and an expert in design theory and ontology engineering, will deliver the keynote address for a workshop that seeks to advance the understanding of capabilities within information systems on Friday, April 20, at 12:45 p.m. in 126 Bonner Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus

Ameri, who calls himself a “knowledge engineer,” leads the Engineering Informatics Research Group at Texas State, a lab charged with improving the intelligence of design and manufacturing systems.

The UB event, “Capabilities: Human and Machine,” will also bring together a panel of philosophers and engineers to discuss the place for capability within the general framework of ontology, the science of consistently representing massive amounts of data by building common vocabularies based on rigorous classifications.

Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and director of the National Center for Ontological Research at UB, and one of the workshop’s panelists, says the idea of capability is tremendously general and worthy of critical examination.

“Capability is interesting because it applies not only to machines but also to people,” says Smith, who in 2016 was named one the most influential living philosophers by TheBestSchools.org, a leading resource for campus and online education.

“Everything is about capabilities once you start looking at the world from this perspective – and I believe this workshop is the first theoretical meeting of its kind to address the definition of capability.”

Ameri and Smith will be joined by Peter Koch, a clinical ethics consultant and assistant professor of philosophy at Villanova University; and Tom Hagedorn, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for e-design at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for discussions on defining capability, representing human capabilities and representing capabilities for product design.

A complete workshop schedule with program details is available online.

Function and capability are related, but remain distinct.

Machines have functions: their function is their reason for existing. But machines also have capabilities; they can alarm, for instance, when their power supply is nearly depleted.

People on the other hand have capabilities, but they do not have functions.

“It’s not my function to be a philosopher,” explains Smith. “Our organs have functions. The function of the digestive system is to digest food. People have the capability to digest food because of the digestive system’s function.

“Functions have been well studied. We have good definitions and we know how to deal with them,” says Smith. “Capabilities, on the other hand, have been studied practically by engineers, but not theoretically; so their work still lacks the starting point for ontology.”

That’s where philosophers come in.

With computers increasingly driving aspects within manufacturing, the ability to reason with capabilities will continue to grow as information technologies become more advanced.

Just as clinicians must understand human capabilities, such as the ability to cope with pain, so systems engineers must deal with the vaulting capabilities of both the mechanical elements of a system and the people who design, operate and maintain them.

Modern manufacturing relies on digital operations to control product life cycles, machine design and product testing. But problems arise when different companies have different digital systems. Collaboration, and often communication with customers, is not possible because the machines can’t interoperate.

But philosophers can help engineers address these challenges in the same way they helped biologists working on the Human Genome project when the need arose to associate new sequence data with existing biological phenomenon.

In fact, Smith’s work with the Gene Ontology Consortium made him the first philosopher to work with biologists on the problem of logically coherent classification of the new genomic data coming onstream.

Today, Smith’s pioneering work, which demonstrated how the philosophical ideas from logic and semantics could help biology, is being directed toward manufacturing.

“Currently, there is a widespread belief in the utility of creating unique languages or coding systems,” says Smith. “Unfortunately, this means that a silo-effect quickly establishes itself, where every organization and every branch of every organization ends up having data which can’t be channeled easily to the other parts of the organization and to organizations on the outside.” In some areas of engineering, above all those related to Computer Aided Design (CAD), this problem has been solved. The maturity of those systems allows them to speak successively with one another, but Smith says all other aspects of manufacturing – cost calculations, materials attributes and the use the machines will be put to – are outside the realm of CAD.

“We’re trying gradually to build out CAD into other areas of manufacturing and work out the basic ontological principles for those areas,” says Smith.

"Capabilities: Human and Machine" is sponsored by Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies; the National Center for Ontological Research; and the Romanell Center for Clinical Ethics and the Philosophy of Medicine.

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