My purpose is to curate a living map of the World's knowledge.
My 生き甲斐 (ikigai) “reason to get up in the morning” is to facilitate responsible human achievement.
To see how far humanity can get when their needs are obviated and caring, ethical, responsible people are empowered to act with the fullest of their human potential.
Curating a living map of the world's knowledge means contributing towards systems which make humanity more effective at pursuing answers to meaningful questions. It also necessitates that humanity should have tools to obtain a more holistic understanding of the questions we're asking (and the implications surrounding these questions and answers). It is inspired by Vannevar Bush's Memex and Tim Berners-Lee's Giant Global Graph.
A big part of this mission involves structuring and connecting related data in relevant ways. It also entails designing Artificial Intelligence algorithms capable of classifying data with (or without) varying levels of human assistance. Above all, it means building views and interfaces (i.e. maps) which enable people both to easily contribute knowledge (e.g. Wikipedia) and explore fields of knowledge.
Here is why I choose the words I did:
Disclaimer: Like one's financial investments, not all one's efforts are best spent directly on your life's mission. For instance, what's the point of creating a map of worldly knowledge if the earth is going to be hit by an asteroid during our life time? Or if we have tons of knowledge but no freedom of speech? Here's a list of some causes I support (both monetarily and through my volunteer efforts) in order to support my life mission. Included among these is Preventing Global and Existential Risk & Catastrophe.
One of humanity's most limiting factors is the speed by which we access the right information. Today there exists too great a volume of texts for one to manually process in their lifetime. It makes it commonplace to miss out in discovering a text which could change our life, or belief system, or understanding. This problem is exacerbated by unpredictable variable quality of these works and licensing which prevents curators from consolidation.
For me, the process of choosing a book is so daunting it's anxiety inducing. Reading takes a long time. There are only so many books we can read. And it's even more frustrating "meta-reading" (i.e. doing research just to figure out what you *should* be reading). It seems like with all the people in the world, we should have a much better idea about what the most important books to read are (and mechanisms to determine such information in a high quality way).
Example: Here's an example of the problem and the opportunity. There are approximately 29,681 books on Calculus on Amazon.com. How much of their content overlaps? How many of these books has an author read before they decide to write a new book on the topic? Which books contain the best or unique explanations? How can all these books be connected in a way which allows us to seamlessly switch from one to another, when one particular work isn't sufficient for our use case? For more thoughts on this topic, refer to, "On Books" and a deeper survey of the logistics of the problem.
Pictured below: Yasiv.com is an interface which attempts to simplify the problem of information overload on Amazon.com by connecting similar books which were purchased by the same people. Read also: From the YARIV blog, Storytelling with Data - Graph Analysis.
I believe we as a society have need for cartographers of knowledge; that structured, linked data, paired with domain expertise (e.g. wikipedia) and augmented with programatic intelligence and access, can help humanity and machines work together to identify and map* [shortest] paths through knowledge spaces. Each of these directed path(s) represent a digital curriculum. And each of these curriculum could be interconnected into a living, universal map of the world's knowledge. The inner contents of books, academic papers, youtube videos could be inserted (where appropriate) into this graph, enabling learners to seamlessly access the right resources (without the friction of having to check them out at a library) as they navigate each step of a curricula. These will be the books of the 22nd century, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface of creating its printing press or "amazon.com".
* When I say map, instead of meaning a "mapping" (in the mathematical sense, of one thing mapping to another) I instead literally mean a navigational map (e.g. a mercator map), which an early explorer painstakingly labored over. It's important to be able to calculate distance between objects on such maps, to identify obstructions along routes (like traffic or mountains), and to qualify which areas are unexplored.
A Universal Knowledge Map...
What does a solution look like?
Imagine having a digital atlas of all of Mathematics. With the ability to see a heatmap of all the topics you understand, and the degree to which you understand them. Your personal GPS showing you where you are; your current state of knowledge, what you know, and what you don't know. Using your trackpad, you'd zoom semantically deeper into any subject area, just like google maps, learning more about the academic topology of each space... That combinatorics is a subfield of number theory, albeit a small one compared to number theory.
Now imagine zooming in through subject areas until encountering an unfamiliar equation or concept, and with the press of a key, your Map generates a direct, shortest path of self-contained directions, catered to you (based on information about your prior knowledge; e.g. Metacademy, Khan Academy and Arbital) on how to arrive at a undertanding of the principle.
Instead of getting map directions tailored to whether you are traveling by bike, walking, or public transit, you might choose to request directions for a brief walkthrough, a comprehensive example, or perhaps a basic overview is sufficient to address your use case. Now, instead of being limited to mathematics, imagine a Universal Knowledge Map (think of an atlas), which covers all scholarly knowledge and is constantly updated by the community and by algorithms, like Wikipedia.
Imagine if instead of holding a single book, you could use such a system to simultaneously navigate all books. At an instant you could discern which books had the best explanations, which sections others read, how and when readers jump from book to book, and in what sequence. It might look something like this. And what about the same thing for academic papers? What if instead of reading a paper, you could follow a self-contained, literate, expert curated curriculum which incorporates all dependencies you'd need to understand that work?
Such a platform would afford researchers of any skill level to holistically explore any field without wasting time guessing which information is accessible to them and in which order they should read. With a living map of the world's knowledge, anyone may visualize and inspect their hypotheses against any and all available relevant information; to determine its applicability, its consistency and correctness, and its potential impact. And if this is achievable, why should we settle for anything less?
Out of every problem in the world, why is this one worth dedicating one's life? I began with a list of first principles; criteria which I value:
*I like the idea of working on problems which are universal (will remain relevant and compound in interest over the course of 10,000 years). In my mind, this broadly includes mathematics and computer science, physics, chemistry, and biology.
Why specifically? I have an essay on facebook which describes the provenance of my coming to champion this mission. The simplest reason I can give is Universal (programmatic) Access to Knowledge is just. It leads us towards a world I would like to see. It's frustrating knowing all around the world people are duplicating the same inefficient preperatory steps organizing their research process and environment when none of it is material to the learning process. It's analogous to the frustration of searching for a book using a library card catalog versus typing in a url and retrieving a book instantly. We can do better. Let's find a way to allow more humans to spend their time productively. My hypothesis is the result will be:
Why wouldn't we want the option to consider all available and relevant information when attempting to explain a phenomenon? It allows us to [leverage technology to] reason about things outside of our limited scope of knowledge. I asked Jessy Exum, Dr. Richard Hamming's million dollar question, "What is the most important problem in the universe?".Jessy Exum answered, "I don't think that any single person can know the answer to that". I think this is one of the most compelling reasons that we should explore ways of sharing and uniting our knowledge. Because the answer to this question is imperative to the survival of the human race.
Here are some key principles this mission addresses:
How do we do it? What is entailed in curating a living map of the world's knowledge?
Here's a list of high impact sub-problems we may wish to explore as demos/examples:
Here a few demos of system which well embody these philosophies:
Find 100 people with 100 year goals around ever-green topics (math, sciences, philosophy, medicine, history, human survival). Build prototypes which connect knowledge via graphs and unite their backends over the same database (graph.global)
Many citizens of the world (Vannevar Bush, Paul Otelet, Ted Nelson, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Jimmy Wales, Euclid, Brewster Kahle, Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Salman Khan, and countless others) dedicated vast amounts of their life energy to improving accessibility of information. Some were so focused in their mission they became tunnel-visioned (e.g. the Principica Mathematica's violation of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem) and didn't spend sufficient time asking important questions as to the viability and consequences of their approaches.
Often when I tell people my goal, they classify me as a dreamer. And while I may be deserving of their cynicism, I'd like to think I make an active effort to dream with my eyes open. I readily concede my goals are more ambitious than I as an individual can expect to accomplish within my lifetime. But instead of sacrificing the scope of my goal, I instead aspire to make steady progress on manageable, solvable, and high impact sub-problems, to reach milestones of progress often, and for that which I can accomplish, do so well and with a clear trail of provenance that others may leverage after I am gone.
Towards this goal, I use spreadsheets to quantify my progress and actively surround myself with comrades who can give me constructive criticisms and who can guide me towards curbing my enthusiasm. I observe a similar philosophy as my mentor Aaron Swartz in his essay, "Productivity" (see my addition thoughts). I try to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from their successes, as well as their mistakes. Some of my favorite lessons I've preserved here.
Many of these lessons have made me sensitive to many challenges and logistic limitations which may prevent me from realizing some elements of this mission (i.e. Cory Doctrow's, "Metacrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia", John McCarthy's, "Frame Problem", Kurt Gödel's, "Incompleteness Theorem"). And while I try to be considerate and ground myself by these cautionary principles, I nonetheless subscribe to the philosophy that the, Incompleteness Theorem Doesn't Mean "Stop Trying" -- It just means, thoughtfully "Scope Your Objectives".
I think it's achievable to get to the point where human computation and (in the same vein) communication are the limiting factor to what we can learn, and not information retrieval and latency. That is, we will be able to instantly retrieve an answer to any question we can imagine, and the process by which we imagine and form questions will become our bottleneck. I believe this fundamental limitation of the human condition (which impacts how we think and communicate) will be addressed by extending out humanity with technology at a more intimate level (i.e. bci and more "direct" access).
Is this achievable in my life time? Probably not, which is why part of my life needs to be dedicated to the sustainability of the world, discovering the right people who are capable of making forward progress on these issues, cultivating the interest of others and explaining why these problems are so important, and documenting my learnings and ideas as carefully as I can.
How do all of my projects come together?
Perhaps you have a similar goal and would like to know what other work has been done towards its success. My path is informed by many great mathematicians, philosophers, scientists, and archivists who have been informing efforts for decades:
Thanks to the following folks who helped improve this essay