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Formal Ontology in Information Systems:  Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference (FOIS 2006), Volume 150

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Since ancient times, ontology, the analysis and categorisation of what exists, has been fundamental to philosophical enquiry. But, until recently, ontology has been seen as an abstract, purely theoretical discipline, far removed from the practical applications of science. However, with the increasing use of sophisticated computerised information systems, solving problems of an ontological nature is now key to the effective use of technologies supporting a wide range of human activities. The ship of Theseus and the tail of Tibbles the cat are no longer merely amusing puzzles. We employ databases and software applications to deal with everything from ships and ship building to anatomy and amputations. When we design a computer to take stock of a ship yard or check that all goes well at the veterinary hospital, we need to ensure that our system operates in a consistent and reliable way even when manipulating information that involves subtle issues of semantics and identity. So, whereas ontologists may once have shied away from practical problems, now the practicalities of achieving cohesion in an information-based society demand that attention must be paid to ontology.

Researchers in such areas as artificial intelligence, formal and computational linguistics, biomedical informatics, conceptual modeling, knowledge engineering and information retrieval have come to realise that a solid foundation for their research calls for serious work in ontology, understood as a general theory of the types of entities and relations that make up their respective domains of inquiry. In all these areas, attention is now being focused on the content of information rather than on just the formats and languages used to represent information. The clearest example of this development is provided by the many initiatives growing up around the project of the Semantic Web. And, as the need for integrating research in these different fields arises, so does the realisation that strong principles for building well-founded ontologies might provide significant advantages over ad hoc, case-based solutions. The tools of formal ontology address precisely these needs, but a real effort is required in order to apply such philosophical tools to the domain of information systems. Reciprocally, research in the information sciences raises specific ontological questions which call for further philosophical investigations.
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