Perhaps the one thing that Korean cities like Busan and Seoul have in common with Hong Kong is the neon. Looking out of a Hong Kong Club window earlier this week around 8 pm I observed the office building light show, as each of the major buildings showed off their neon displays in a winking cacophony of soundless light. Very impressive, and a good backdrop to the intellectual light show the next day, as the opening speaker at the Business Information Industry Association (BIIA) joint event with the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society and Hong Kong Polytechnic University took us on an intellectual journey into artificial intelligence that all of us following speakers struggled to emulate. But as an exercise in reconciling the thinking of CIO/CTO – level management with the current developments in data analytics the whole meeting could not have been better organized. As well as a vision of the potential futures in machine and system intelligence, it provided here and now guidance eon the reasons why we need to start and continue down this path, and the benefits we may expect to gain from doing so.

But let me start at the beginning. The first speaker, Ben Goertzel, is both an AI expert, and an innovator and entrepreneur. With his colleagues at Aidyia (, at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and through his OpenCog Foundation (; he works both as a developer of new concepts, and of applications in financial services and trading markets. Aidiya “Aidyia is developing advanced artificial intelligence technology to model and predict financial markets. Aidyia’s predictive model will empower programmed trading systems for fund management.” He gave as good a demonstration as you could wish for if you accept Ray Kurzweil’s proposition that machine intelligence will exceed human intelligence by 2045. Yet much of his talk underlined the idea that you do not need belief: there is enough already in the marketplace to persuade us that we are progressively replacing certain tasks in society with machine intelligence, and that this is a beneficial process.

Here then was a session where the AGI element was centre stage, but you did not have to be a follower of Singularity theory or a robotics fanatic to carry away an enduring belief in the ability of men like Ben Goertzel to change entirely the basis upon which we look at the intelligence which we are currently building into the world of solutions and services. So it was heartening after this to hear Euan Semple drawing upon his valuable experience as head of social media at the BBC to persuade us that we need to grow up – and grow into our inheritance as the interpreters and re-users of the most valuable insights available in the unforced and natural communication within the social media network. In other words, social media are vital if we want to contextualize our analytics and give a reality check to what we are doing with data elsewhere.

Which nicely prepared us for the challenge of cloud computing, as presented by Professor Eric Tsui of HK Polytechnic University. But we were soon past conventional cloud environments Professor Tsui believes with great persuasive power that we shall soon exhaust the cost reduction and compliance benefits of the current cloud collaboration. He calls this the “adolescent cloud”, and excited all of us with a vision of the cloud playing a role in Open Innovation, and in Connectionist learning – a Knowledge Cloud. The Tsui theory that the cloud will become a key element in new business model development and rapid re-iteration of service models is an attractive one, and it blends the cloud as a huge data repository firmly into other strands of developmental and analytical thinking. And these mental fireworks had scarcely died down before Professor Nicolas Lesca of the Universite Claude Bernard at Lyon took the stage. His argument – and I suspect that we had the preliminaries of a presentation of several hours – is that data analytics now adds an extra dimension in a way that few of us had considered before. His arguments were all about the interpretation of weak signals, picking up messages from the data which might previously have never been heard or measured, let alone interpreted. How you amplify these signals, and separate noise from content, is the subject of Professor Lesca’s research, and his thinking had a clear resonance for the debate in the room.

For those whose heads were aching with ideas overload, it was good that the last speaker was the present writer, trying to sum up and pull these themes together. Is there a dichotomy between knowledge management and so-called “Big Data”? Not in this conference. Speakers simply added richness and complexity to the increasing importance of knowledge management subsuming all of these AI, social media, cloud computing and weak signalling themes. As a result marketplaces for information grow more rewarding as well as more complex, and the skills base around knowledge work becomes ever more demanding. I hope the Professors in our programme are as good at producing knowledge managers as they obviously are at knowledge research. And one last thought lingered in my mind. Several times in the day we hovered over search. The expression “needle in a haystack” was used, and we pointed out to each other how inappropriate it was. After all, if we knew we were looking for a needle, and that the place where it was to be found was in a haystack, then the job was done. Bring in the metal detector! Yet the first image I recall in the early days of search was of a huge bale of documentation in an advertisement for BRS Search with people crawling all over it – a veritable document haystack. If Knowledge Management has anything to do with that world then all is lost. If we have not disintegrated and disaggregated the document then we are never going to get to a point of data granularity where this new world has a chance of working. At the moment, though no one said it here in Hong Kong, Knowledge managers may be adherents to the brave new world when out of the office, but too many are prisoners of the wicked world of legacy document based systems when they get home.

Please check the websites of BIIA ( and HKKMS ( for further reports and the slide sets from this really interesting meeting.

I have always felt that the further East you travel the more wisdom you encounter, and the prejudice was sharply confirmed earlier this week in a conversation with Dr Myungdae Cho, Director of the Linked Data Centre at the AICT (Advanced Institute for Convergent Technologies) at the Seoul National University. We had met to discuss the state of linked data in our two very different countries. But all of a sudden the conversation soared away over the skyscrapers of modern Seoul and we found ourselves debating some of the fundamentals of human understanding and communication. As well as a computer scientist my interlocutor is a historian, and his project has been interlinking the documentation of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty And which other civilizations can boast a 500 year dynasty? So then, take all of that documentation, and all the scholarly work associated with it, and begin to work on advanced taxonomies, on inference rules and on semantic analysis until an ontological framework begins to emerge. This then becomes the focus for a development which allows scholars to survey the period from a higher hill, with an additional dimension. Then add the art, the images, the objects from the Internet of Things and a platform of study emerges which opens up analytical perspectives which previous scholars simply could never have grasped. Yes, says my companion, it really is easier to view the future when you are looking backwards.

So why, I wonder, has it taken so long to get the Berners Lee vision of semantic analysis, now the linked data movement off the ground. Unsurprisingly, the answer was that timelines are a poor guide to progress in these matters. So we discussed instead the great change points in communication. First the origins of natural language as a descriptive code for communicating shared experiences. Then pictograms, writing and the source of the alphabet, of which Korea can proudly claim it’s Hangruel as a very early example. Then printing, where Korea and China come much earlier than Europe. What do we make of the fact that these elements, each of which represents not just a step forward but also a radical change in the type and style of communication, seem to happen in similar ways in societies with little or no contact with each other? And is what is happening now, supported by the promise of linked data, a further radical forward motion in the type and style of communication comparable to printing or writing? And anyway, he said, we had been inept in explaining the concepts – and even in naming them. Were expressions like “triple stores” readily understandable? Especially when they were “quadruples”, as his often were? And who named RDF? Even calling it the Resource Definition Framework did not help. He thought and spoke about it as the “logical glue” which kept the elements in place. If we had such difficulty in describing things how could we communicate them?

The essential point is perhaps that we do not know, and cannot tell. But every time Samsung produces a voice agent that sends your messages as texts or emails we must begin to wonder. And while some technology in Korea seems to be heading into a cul de sac (the hotel industry pre-occupation with heated toilet seats could be an example) here is a society which, when it already had 300 kph trains (UK please note) concentrated its infrastructure development on 40 mgb wifi nationally. And much of it is free, certainly in every hotel encountered this trip. Another milestone change from my last visit, in 1981!

So I decided to test the thinking of Myungdae Cho on a young student encountered on the fast train to Busan. Did he think we were facing a revolution in human communication? He was 26, had just finished his national military service and was on his way to visit his parents, after months away from home. But while Myungdae Cho looks back to Loughborough as an alma mater, this young man was a product of Illinois at Champlain-Urbana. Yes, he certainly believed in the internet as the place to do business. His plan was to return to Seattle or Portland, where he felt the spirit of Silicon Valley culture now lived, and build his own business. He already had elements of a team and the beginnings of a plan. Now the next struggle was to persuade his cardiac surgeon father that this was a good plan too! Did he think the internet was the frontier? Of course, but it also enabled you to build your own business quickly. This was almost a definition of freedom. And what was the opposite? Going to work for Samsung, having a “career”.

A few conversations mean little in the great sum of things. But I suspect that even if Korea is a less entrepreneurial society than it once was, it remains a place where the big patterns can be appreciated. I think that Myungdae Cho’s faith in the development of knowledge structures is not misplaced, and that however those forces move through global society Korea will be an early adopter and remain an important player. And when he has made his fortune on the West Coast I am certain that my young friend will return to Busan. After all, where else do you get wonderful spas, sandy beaches and kimchi!

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