Towards more efficient human knowledge transfer


A young person living in a village in rural Africa who learns to read English and has an Internet connection (even a slow one) has access to tremendous stores of information including things that could help improve his or her life: specifics of botany, electronics, how to repair equipment like cell phones, how solar panels work at a practical level currents, voltages, what happening on the inside of the battery cells and how they are affected by heat and cold, dampness. We can currently repair popular consumer items based on information we find freely available over the Internet, but it's harder to create. Much of the information necessary for creation is locked up in trained people's heads, either as embodied knowledge in the workplace, or knowledge that is transmitted directly from professors to grad students with no publicly accessible record. The general knowledge base is fragmented, and as soon as you try to get from general knowledge to something more specific you either can't find what you're looking for, or you can't understand what you find and there are no back-links to help you define all the terms used.

There are three areas that I find particularly frustrating: i) a lack of links within disciplines, ii) a lack of links between disciplines, iii) a lack of links between specialized knowledge and generalized knowledge.


General knowledge: Knowledge that is freely accessible (and understandable) to anyone with a search engine and a high-school education. [[Caveats: Language]] *Note: In this document I'll use double-brackets to indicate pages that I want to create.

Specialized knowledge: I define specialized knowledge as knowledge that is not readily accessible to the general public, either by not being available, or by being inscrutable to someone without training in the area.

A lack of links within a discipline: in my statistics class, defining specialized knowledge, linking it up to my previous knowledge, cross-referencing it, and disambiguate again, all took place without as many technological innovations as it could have. We had little videos little games at the WISE website for interactive statistics learning, but we did not have a quick disambiguation or text hyperlinks for terms. So I started to put it together a wiki to define all the terms we learned other built upon each other until they ended up in general knowledge and a link to a Wikipedia page, or a blog post. And to track the specialization (i.e. depth, complexity) of of the concept we were exploring, I would count the number of hops it took to get to general knowledge. As concepts built upon each other, it would take more and more hops to get out from a statistical term to general knowledge.

Another source of frustration is a terrible state of disciplinary knowledge: except for Physics and, to some extent, philosophy, it is rare for discipline to have a central repository of papers, much less the equivalent of a wiki where all the knowledge within the discipline is collected, cross-referenced. The way that papers work, academic articles-and I will take this social quote sciences" as my example here-are not cohesive: instead of wrapping tightly to build up our knowledge piece by piece; building of the equivalent of good libraries from which others can work on improving. Currently researchers tend to follow trails as far as they can based on the slimmest evidence and with the very slightest cross-referencing with the results others, because of the pressure to always be learning something new; adding knowledge; the problem is usually knowledge has context and interrelationships-or, I would say interrelationships and context tends to make knowledge more useful. Most stories of scientific progress, especially large leaps, but also including many small ones, is the remembering of things (or facts), that have never in thought about in a specific context all together before. When that happens, it leads to innovation, however small it is.