Bernard Tan Today's Visionary is Bernard Tan, a physicist and composer and Dean of Students (formerly Dean of Science) at the National University of Singapore. He was instrumental in Singapore's adoption of BITNET, which resulted in Singapore becoming one of the first nations in Asia to connect to the Internet. He is currently the Chairman of Singapore's National Internet Advisory Committee.

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By Bernard Tan, Dean of Students, University of Singapore More Visions »

I see a Wisdom Space

       In 1986, I gave a keynote address to an AI conference in Singapore in which I tried to visualise the importance of the information age for a rapidly developing nation such as Singapore. As I then said, “the twin spearheads of the information technology revolution will be data communications and artificial intelligence. Singapore is already an important node in the world telecommunications network. By tying ourselves into this world network as a focal point for the transmission and processing of information, we will ensure that a major part of the world’s information traffic will pass through us.”

       At that time, Singapore was about to become one of the first countries in Asia to join BITNET which was then an inexpensive way to connect to the Internet. I had attended an EDUCOM conference at Austin, Texas in 1985 and had enthusiastically proposed to my university, the National University of Singapore, that we join BITNET as a means of overcoming our physical distance from the major academic centres of the world. The Internet followed BITNET within a few years and Singapore is now one of the most active players in the Internet world today.

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a hierarchy of loss
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Where is the life
   we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom
   we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge
   we have lost in information?

from The Rock
by T.S. Eliot (1934)

This poetic passage, couched as it is in terms of loss, hints at a hierarchy of human perception and understanding. The process begins by organizing information (which is, perhaps, one step up from raw data) into a body of knowledge. The process becomes meaningful when knowledge leads to a beneficial change in behavior - a behavior that is called wisdom. [ed.]

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       As I then commented, tying ourselves into international data networks would not be sufficient, but we in Singapore had to leverage on the use of AI to deal with the flood of information which the Internet would unleash. I suggested that a new field which I then called “Knowledge Science” would be needed, incorporating not only computer disciplines such as database management and expert systems, but also library science and encyclopaedia organisation, as well as disciplines such as cognitive science and epistemology.

      I envisioned the “Knowledge Scientist” to be “dealing with human knowledge as an organised and integrated totality, bound together by the web of inter-relationships which characterise human experience and understanding.” I also hoped that we would eventually develop “a true calculus of information which must eventually emerge, and which will form the conceptual basis of a future knowledge science.” While the Internet brings us data in the form of raw bits and bytes, a Knowledge Scientist would be able to deal with this data in a global and all-encompassing manner, processing the hierarchy of information levels from data to information to knowledge and finally to wisdom (a hierarchy first proposed by T.S. Eliot and elucidated later by Harlan Cleveland).

      My focus then was on Singapore being able to utilise such an understanding of information and knowledge to become a “Knowledge Broker” for the world, capable of bringing knowledge and information of every kind from source to user. These sentiments, written in 1986 before the World-Wide Web was a reality, seem to me to be as relevant now, not just to Singapore but to all of us who use the Internet and the Web and the vast sea of information which they bring us.

      So when I see Cyberspace, I see a new kind of space, breaking the bounds of classical space and time, and one which is filled by - no - composed entirely of information, and whose physical laws are governed by the laws of a new Knowledge Science. If we perceive Cyberspace only as raw data, it is then merely a Data Space; only when this data becomes intelligible does it become an Information Space, which is more or less where we are now. We need to become Knowledge Scientists who will be able to perceive Cyberspace as a Knowledge Space into which all of us can dip our minds and drink from. Finally, in some distant future, perhaps we will perceive Cyberspace as a kind of Wisdom Space, which will enable us to tap into the collective wisdom of all human civilization, everywhere and everywhen.

 Copyright © 1999, 2000

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